Spatial Resolution in IR Reflectance Imaging — NIR, Mid-IR, and ATR

Sep 01, 2014

When images are measured in reflectance, the observed structure is not necessarily just that of the sample surface. The two-dimensional (2D) images produced by near-infrared (NIR) and mid-IR imaging are representations of three-dimensional (3D) objects. In reflectance images the effective spatial resolution is affected by how far the radiation penetrates into the sample as well as by diffraction and the pixel size. NIR images are typically dominated by diffuse reflection with the result that in practice spatial resolution is limited by the penetration depth. Mid-IR reflectance images may contain both specular and diffuse components. These have different spatial resolutions as the specular component shows purely surface structure. In attenuated total reflectance (ATR) images the resolution has a component that depends on the distribution of components within a surface layer corresponding to the penetration depth, which is proportional to wavelength. We illustrate these different contributions to the observed resolution with images of materials with known 2D and 3D structures.

What do we measure in reflection? For the majority of samples, transmission measurements are not possible so spectra have to be obtained by reflectance. This involves either external reflection, often divided into specular and diffuse reflection, or attenuated total reflection (ATR). What you see in external reflection is the sum of what is reflected from the surface (specular or Fresnel reflection) and what penetrates into the sample before emerging (diffuse reflection). You see only surface reflection from a continuous uniform material where radiation that penetrates is not scattered back to the surface. Very strongly absorbing materials also show only surface reflection as the radiation that penetrates is all absorbed. With scattering materials some radiation that penetrates the material returns to the surface by encountering interfaces where there is a change of refractive index. The relative amounts of surface and diffuse reflection depend on the absorptivity and particle sizes of the sample and are wavelength dependent. Small particle size and weak absorption increase the amount of diffuse reflection. In practice, diffuse reflection dominates in the near infrared (NIR) whereas spectra in the mid-IR often show significant contributions from both surface and diffuse reflection.

Figure 1: Diffuse reflection and transmission.
How does this affect spatial resolution? In an imaging experiment, separate spectra are measured for each pixel while the incident radiation covers the whole area. If reflection comes only from the surface, the spatial resolution should depend simply on diffraction and the pixel size. However, any radiation that penetrates a scattering sample takes a random path through the material and will not all return to the point at which it entered the sample. Thus, the radiation contributing to any pixel in the image is a combination of rays from some volume underneath the point on the surface that is being observed. The deeper the radiation can penetrate into the sample and return without being absorbed, the larger this volume will be. If we assume isotropic scattering, the average lateral displacement from the point of incidence to where the radiation emerges will be similar to the average depth to which the radiation penetrates. This will cause blurring of the image by an amount that depends on the average penetration depth. There have been several attempts to estimate the depth that the radiation penetrates (1,2). These suggest average values in the range of 50–100 µm for NIR observations of materials such as pharmaceutical tablets. As a result, the spatial resolution achieved in NIR reflection images is likely to be in this range. This is in contrast to what is observed with the metal-on-glass reflection targets normally used where diffraction limited spatial resolution is better at the shorter wavelengths of the NIR region than in the mid-IR.

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