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The development of a portable surface elemental analysis tool, based on the excitation of characteristic x rays from samples at ambient pressure with a focused electron beam is described. This instrument relies on the use of a thin electron transmissive membrane to isolate the vacuum of the electron source from the ambient atmosphere. The major attributes of this instrument include rapid (several minutes) spectrum acquisition, nondestructive evaluation of elemental composition, no sample preparation, and high-to-medium (several hundreds μm) spatial resolution. The instrument proof-of-principle has been demonstrated in a laboratory setup by obtaining energy dispersive x-ray spectra from metal and mineral samples. © 2003 American Institute of Physics.