HH XRF X-200 analyzer used by Earth Sciences Foundation to study dinosaur bones

October 25, 2023

SciAps X-200 XRF is being used, both in the field and in multiple repositories, to analyze dinosaur bones. Thomas Hebert from Earth Sciences Foundation, Inc. is excited about the opportunity to use the SciAps XRF in his research and projects associated with the foundation.

Three main goals of Earth Sciences Foundation: ARM

Access, Research, and Museums (ARM) are at the heart of every decision Hebert and the Foundation make.

Access: Everyone should have the opportunity to explore their interests in Earth Sciences.

Research: The foundation is committed to using cutting edge technology for research.

Museums: Museums are the best place to keep fossils. Museums give easy access to the public and to researchers to help understand the history of our planet.


As the director of a non-profit foundation, Hebert is well aware of the importance of having access to the private ranches in Montana and the Native American land they dig on, which in turn motivates him to pay it forward. “One of the driving forces for me when I started this foundation was those curious children who ask a lot of questions but don’t get them answered. They tend to get doors closed on them all the time,” says Hebert. “I literally put it in our vision statement:

‘When a door is closed on an individual or an idea in earth sciences, we will be there to help kick the door open and walk through it together.’

Everyone should always have the opportunity to learn about the things that light them up.”

If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is a child’s fascination with dinosaurs. “I tell people dinosaurs are like a gateway drug. It's how we get young people interested in sciences,” says Hebert. “The great thing about our foundation is that students come for the dinosaurs and get introduced to chemistry, diagenesis, geography, cartography, and math, and the importance of writing and communicating effectively. Project-based learning works. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

The Foundation has just created a partnership with One Screen, a company that makes smartboards for classrooms. The plan is to do live virtual field trips. “We go into the field on a video call and walk students around a dig site and show them dinosaur bones. We're trying to figure out a way to make this available to everyone,” says Hebert. One idea is to use a 3D printer to make casts of dinosaur bones and send them to schools so that students can hold the cast in their hands while the presenter is holding the artifact during the virtual live event. “It gives kids access, especially for those who may never have a chance otherwise,” says Hebert.

Another driving force behind the Foundation’s mission to give students access is the hope that it will increase enrollment in geosciences. There's been a rapid decline in geoscience degrees in the last 10 years. In 2013, undergraduate enrollment in geosciences degrees was roughly at 31,000 with the enrollment in 2021 at 20,000, reports the American Geoscience Institute. Then consider the difference between enrollment and earning a degree. According to College Factual, “In 2020-2021, 7,821 people earned their degree in geological and earth sciences, making the major the 95th most popular in the United States.”

“People are not going to school for this anymore because all we keep hearing is ‘mining is bad’ and ‘we're destroying the planet.’ But now there’s a push for electric cars and renewable energy. How do people think that’s going to happen?” says Hebert.

“Yes, we need to do this in a way that is socially responsible, but it still must be done. We need people going to school to learn how to find lithium and mine it in the safest possible way for the planet.” (Contact SciAps to find out more about our lithium analyzers and brines Liquidator Test Station—tools for socially responsible renewable energy.)


With the SciAps X-200, the Foundation’s research has been invigorated. Currently, the XRF is being used to collect data to possibly get a chemical signature for the dinosaur fossils. Much like the gem and mineral industry, the team is testing to see if geo-fingerprinting is possible with dinosaur bones. “For hundreds of years, people have been digging up fossils, but we have no idea where most of them came from. But we now have technology that can determine exact geographic location,” says Hebert. The next step will be to compare the data they are collecting and then gather data on fossils without location data, which will, hopefully, narrow down locales for those fossils.

Currently, Hebert is studying hadrosaur teeth. “If you've ever seen the movie Land Before Time—I’m studying Ducky's teeth,” says Hebert. Recently, he scanned about 500 teeth in 2 days, and put the data on spreadsheets. “It's interesting that there is a distinct chemical difference depending on the location. On one site the fossils contain a significant, measurable amount of cobalt. The others don't. Once we test more sites, we’ll know if other sites have that anomaly.”

Another hope is that the data collected can be used to give more details about the dinosaur. Can the chemical signature determine when the dinosaur lived and died? Can the accumulation of heavy metals be used to determine if bones come from an adult or a younger dinosaur?

“The dream here, really, is can we get more paleontologists around the world to collect chemical data so that we get a global perspective of the fossils. What's the difference between the last dinosaurs in North America versus the last dinosaurs in Africa versus the last dinosaurs in Asia? Is there a difference in the fossilization process?” says Hebert.

“We tend to have a wonderful understanding of what's going on in our own studies, but this might be an anomaly compared to what's going on in the rest of the world. Hopefully this creates an opportunity for collaboration.”

The Foundation works on a famous rock formation called Hell Creek. It's believed to be the last formation before the meteorite hit and ended the dinosaurs, but there are other sites around the world that have similar formations. Were the dinosaurs already on a decline when the meteorite hit? Can a collaboration determine the answer? “As I continue my research with the XRF, the only thing I know for sure is that I will continue to have more questions. I could do this for the rest of my life,” says Hebert.


The Foundation believes the best way to keep these fossils safe, accessible, and available for continued research is through museums. The best way to do that is to help Native Americans build the museums on their land and fill them with the fossils dug up on their land. “It helps Native Americans create their own economic vitality,” says Hebert. “I can help them build a museum and work with a university on the reservation to introduce curriculum. We can train Native American students how to do what I'm doing so that they have a revenue source.” Places like the Chicago Fields Museum have millions of people a year visit their museum and they charge $30/person. This could be done on Tribal Lands to generate revenue. “If we can teach them how to run this museum, how to dig up fossils, how to tell their story, they will have this revenue source forever,” says Hebert.

Why did you choose the XRF over LIBS?

“We're a nonprofit Science Foundation with a skinny budget. SciAps very generously allowed us to use the XRF,” says Hebert. “I hope it’s a win-win. In return for letting me use this cool equipment, we’re going to show that the XRF is not just for the metal recycling industry.”

The other benefit is that the XRF is a non-destructive test. “We can still put the fossils on display and study them without putting a hundred-micron hole in it or grinding up the specimen into a powder to put it into a synchrotron,” says Hebert.

SciAps XRF also provides good, measurable, repeatable results in a portable handheld analyzer. “We bring it to the dig sites. When we find a fossil, we can scan the fossil in the ground and then scan the ground around it to see the differences and similarities,” says Hebert.

The other benefit? The Foundation provides a “Paleontologist for a Day” experience for children on the dig site. “The XRF is a safe and easy option for kids. They actively participate in research and get excited about science,” says Hebert.

Decompression Digs: A new type of therapy for military veterans?

Paleontologist for a Day is no longer just for children. The Foundation started a free program called “decompression digs” for military veterans and their families.

“Because of the sacrifices they made, I get to be a 12-year-old every day and play in the dirt. This is the least I can do for them,” says Hebert.

The program started when Hebert took his father, a Vietnam Veteran, out on a dig. “My father served in the 1st Cavalry, 1966-67 Central Highlands and Vietnam,” says Hebert. After a few hours on the dig site, Hebert’s dad found a 4 ½ inch T. Rex tooth. He, just like the children that go on digs, looked awe struck. Hebert had to encourage him to pick it up. He told his dad, “You're the first human being that's ever held that. Nobody can ever take that away from you.”

“It's one of the coolest memories I have. He picked the tooth up, like it was the most precious thing in the whole world,” says Hebert. “I watched my dad go from a crabby, grumpy, 60-year-old veteran to a happy, joyous 12-year-old, in a matter of seconds. That’s when I decided to offer our veterans decompression digs. I can't think of a better mental health exercise than sitting out in the middle of nowhere, digging up dinosaurs, and the veterans respond well to the mission-centric task.”  

The Foundation is hoping to expand the program to allow for transitioning veterans to explore career opportunities. “We can do internships with them and show them other possibilities after the military, like becoming surveyors, geologists, geographers, archaeologists, with hands-on experience,” says Hebert. “But it depends on funding. We can have great ideas, but without funding, the ideas will just sit there.”

Hebert’s final words? “Please let everybody know at SciAps that I truly appreciate their support and letting us loan the XRF. We're just glimpsing the tip of the iceberg of what can come from this opportunity.”

To book a dig or donate to the various programs Earth Sciences Foundation, Inc. offers, go to: https://letsdig.org/

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