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World-first experiment brings good vibes for the atomic-scale 'toolbox'

Professor Quentin Ramasse

Professor Quentin Ramasse, Director at the SuperSTEM National Facility
(Credit: STFC)

Our lives and technological progress rely increasingly on the design of new advanced materials. Thermoelectric materials are good examples of these, vital for anything from solar panels to electric cars, wearable clothing and microchips. 

However, there is a growing requirement for new, even higher performing materials to support a constant stream of new applications across many industries, from automotive, to the Internet of Things. Understanding and developing these new functional materials requires the use of an ever-developing ‘toolbox’ of cutting edge techniques.

Recently, a UK-led team of physicists successfully completed a world-first experiment that significantly adds to this ‘toolbox’ of techniques for developing new materials atom by atom. The atoms that make up any solid material can vibrate in ways that express essential information about its composition, structure and properties. Known as phonons, these vibrations are becoming increasingly central to the quest for new materials. Now, the researchers have successfully used electron microscopy to demonstrate the ability to map and image the variations in intensity of these phonons at orders of magnitude higher than has ever been possible with more traditional methods.

The research was led by Dr Fredrik Hage, senior staff scientist at SuperSTEM, the EPSRC National Research Facility, for Advanced Electron Microscopy.

Located at STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, SuperSTEM is home to three super-microscopes that can pinpoint and identify single atoms, at a length scale a million times smaller than a human hair. They rely on a technique known as aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM), which uses beams of electrons to create very detailed images of specimens at the single atom level.

Professor Ramasse, Director of SuperSTEM and Chair of Advanced Electron Microscopy at the University of Leeds, said: “This research confirms our ability to study the variable intensity of phonons within materials at an unprecedented scale, thanks to electron microscopy. The design of new materials can take place quite literally one atom at a time, and this ability to better understand vibrational behaviour within a material, atom by atom, provides a step change in the ‘experimental toolbox’ available to physicists, chemists and materials scientists alike.”

Read more about this research, which was carried out in collaboration with the University of Melbourne, in Physical Review Letters, as well as in a highlight in Physics Today.

Last updated: 09 May 2019

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