Identification of cellulose nitrate X-ray film for the purpose of conservation: Organic elemental analysis

User menu

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Konstantina Konstantinidou; Stanislav Strekopytov; Emma Humphreys-Williams; Mark Kearney;


Studies in Conservation, Volume 62, Number 1, p.24-32 (2017)


Cellulose nitrate was widely used as a film base for photography, cinematography, and radiography in the first half of the twentieth century. Its stability is inherently poor and subject to environmental storage conditions. The risk of fire and the cross-infection effect on the cellulose acetate film stored at the same location necessitate that cellulose nitrate is identified within collections and stored separately. Not only medical archives, but also museums using radiography in their research may hold a sizeable amount of historical X-ray films. The Natural History Museum, London has been using film for X-radiography since before World War II. This suggests that some of the X-ray materials in its collections have a cellulose nitrate rather than ‘safety’ (cellulose acetate or polyester) film base. X-ray sheets rarely contain information related to their composition so science-based identification methods must be used. We propose the determination of nitrogen content in the film by organic elemental analysis (OEA) as a reliable method for the identification of films (X-ray, photographic, or cinematographic) with a cellulose nitrate base. Though it is a destructive method, the sample size required is small (<1 mg). This method does not require any sample preparation apart from weighing the samples and wrapping them in tin foil. OEA proved to be more accurate than the ‘float’ test in trichloroethylene and quicker and more straightforward to perform than infrared spectroscopy.