Material Interest

Video technology is revolutionising how atoms are observed, making it a game-changer in materials research.

Consumer-driven, the electronics market is increasingly under pressure to produce faster, smaller, cheaper, more power-efficient devices. On an operational level, this means working with new materials and shrinking geometries and, to this end, the use of transmission electron microscopes (TEMs) are becoming ever more essential.

University of Limerick’s newly-installed FEI Titan Themis in the Bernal Institute is giving researchers the opportunity to be at the forefront of these technological shifts.

Until recently, these machines were still-image cameras but now video technology has arrived. As Dr Andy Stewart explains, most detectors used in TEMs can record up to 100 frames per second. By contrast, the new UL TEM, at 1600 frames per second, can capture events on a hundredth of the timescale of the human eye sending signals to the brain.

“This new detector is an add-on to the system at UL, giving us the capabilities to see things more clearly.”

Recent developments mean it is now possible to observe materials in a range of environments, including gases and liquids, under heating or while passing an electrical current through the material. This in-situ microscopy is enabling materials to be studied atom by atom in conditions close to a real-world environment.

Combined with the fast detectors, this is leading to a seismic shift in the understanding of material applications in products across industries using semiconductors, pharmaceutical drug materials and investigations of novel 2D materials, which constitutes increasing activity at the Bernal Institute.

“We are researching new 2D materials which are showing great promise,” notes Professor Ursel Bangert, Bernal Chair of Microscopy and Imaging.

Professor Bangert is currently working on tailoring the opto-electronic properties of 2D materials. She is looking at implanting atoms into 2D materials in order to be able to tune the band gap, which will advance the semiconductor industry.

Understanding what happens at an atomic level when we heat materials up, plug appliances in, take our medication or combust fuel in a car engine will ultimately teach us the fundamentals of how the world operates, notes Dr Andy Stewart.

The Titan Themis at UL is one of only a handful in the world and with its in-situ capabilities, it has already helped researchers to win European funding to investigate the growth of pharmaceutical crystals in liquids under magnetic fields.

In-situ TEM is a fast evolving area of research; having these capabilities available on a state-of-the-art microscope will help keep Irish research, both academic and industrial, at the forefront of materials research.

“We have capabilities here that no one else has, so having access to this cutting-edge equipment is putting us ahead of the game,” Dr Stewart concludes.