Transmission Electron Microscopy: Essential Support for Materials Synthesis

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Chemistry


Advanced functional materials are fundamentally important to developing many new technologies and devices that will shape our future. They will define our ability to create cleaner, cheaper, safer and more efficient design, production, manufacturing processes, and technologies. As such, they will be instrumental in addressing many of the most pressing problems facing the world today in areas such as energy, healthcare and medicine, pollution abatement, food production, and manufacturing. Yet central to the development of these new materials is a proper understanding of the science that underpins both their structures and properties at the atomic and/or molecular level. This can only be achieved through the strategic provision of the most state-of-the-art analytical facilities.

In conjunction with the Cambridge Advanced Imaging Centre (CAIC), the Chemistry Department will establish a virtual electron microscopy (EM) hub in the University that offers a unique emphasis on "materials synthesis". Capabilities will comprise bespoke facilities supporting multiple research disciplines. Spearheading this hub will be a 200 kV field emission gun-scanning transmission electron microscope (FEG-S/TEM) with excellent high resolution and STEM imaging capabilities, energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX) and electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) for elucidating chemical composition and bonding, the ability to tomographically reconstruct multiple images to allow the 3D visualization of complex materials and a cryo-holder to enable the analysis not just of so-called 'hard' materials but also the study of 'soft' materials. This TEM-led hub will form one part of a University-wide EM network in which each hub maintains and develops the instrumentation for different specialties and, between them, create the necessary equipment capacity for our research portfolio across Cambridge.

'Hard' materials are often highly crystalline and can exhibit long-range order; yet disorder is often critical to their function. They include metals and metal oxides, porous materials such as zeolites and metal-organic frameworks, semiconductors and ceramics. Meanwhile, 'soft' materials include self-assembled metallopolymers, polymer micelles, nano-gels and bio-inspired or biological materials. These present very different analytical challenges and mean that instruments are often designed to cope with one or other sample type. However, the latest generation of TEMs has the ability to interrogate both of these diverse types of sample. This development offers a step-change in the way that the Departments such as Chemistry, which has research groups synthesizing a broad array of hard and soft materials, can approach Advanced Materials characterization. It is now possible to develop an EM hub that caters for such a broad research demographic. This has two game-changing effects on state-of-the-art research. First, the proposed instrument will spearhead an EM hub that will offer a unique opportunity for the cross-fertilization of ideas and techniques between the hard and soft Advanced Materials communities not only in academia, but also in industry. Second, it will provide essential capacity-building to a broad range of research groups, ensuring routine hands-on access to researchers and the ability to triage samples more efficiently than is currently possible, so enhancing the effectiveness with which more detailed analysis on much more specialized instrumentation can be undertaken.

The wide-ranging capabilities of the proposed Chemistry/CAIC hub mean that Advanced Materials relevant to a wide range of fields can be interrogated. We expect new data to impact on research in a range of areas, including aerospace, automotives, battery and energy technology, catering and food production, communications, drilling and refining, drug delivery, electronics, healthcare, hygiene, ICT, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, regenerative engineering and sensing.

Planned Impact

Impacts resulting from research enabled by the proposed EM hub are expected in the following broad areas:

1) UK leadership in Materials Science.
The creation of cleaner, cheaper, safer and more efficient design, production, manufacturing processes, and technologies is an impact that will define the position of UK PLC in the global technology marketplace. New and/or enhanced processes at traditional subject boundaries are expected by virtue of the broad research demographic accessing the proposed EM hub.

2) Health/Quality of life.
New treatments and procedures will result from research into air-borne nanoparticulates and regenerative engineering. These promise to hugely improve our ability to address global challenges such as pollution abatement and the treatment of medical conditions.

3) Novel products and new investment.
Novel functional technologies will be commercialized and IPR generated by taking advantage of existing links with industry/SMEs and by developing new links by raising the profile of our analytical facilities (e.g. creating an online presence or attending conferences and workshops). This will yield greater inward investment and help establish new companies/spin-outs.

4) Influencing policy.
New research will underpin an evidence-based approach to decision making by governments and lawmakers. New standards, legislation and best practice will result.

More specifically, the new TEM-led hub will have a direct impact on training and skills development, technology development in established companies and new innovation, supporting both the local and UK-wide economy:

1) Establishing a unique EM hub.
Chemistry and the CAIC will establish a new virtual EM hub in Cambridge that offers a unique emphasis and facilities comprising bespoke capabilities that support varied research disciplines. The research coverage of this hub will achieve new data at subject boundaries and enhance the UK skills base in emergent and cross-discipline fields.

2) Training next-generation scientists.
EM-related skills represent a basic-requirement in a range of research fields in industrial R&D. Both the theoretical and practical aspects of EM that will be taught will impact the career development pathways of new young scientists. In the longer-term we will expect tangible enhancements in creativity and productivity in sectors such as aerospace, automotives, battery and energy technology, catering and food production, communications, drilling and refining, electronics, healthcare, hygiene, ICT, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, regenerative engineering and sensing.

3) Strengthen links between academia and non-HEIs.
This TEM will improve the quality and extent of collaborative research which is done by the Chemistry Department and industry/SMEs and also promote new spin-outs. Barriers between stakeholders in university and non-HEIs will be broken down by the highly interdisciplinary research capabilities on offer.

4) Enhanced access to facilities by non-HEIs.
The EM hub will be listed in our institution's Equipment and Facilities Database and promoted online. Members of industry/SMEs will be impacted by being able to access the facility. Interaction between departmental and industry personnel will result and imaginative schemes like hosting industry personnel on secondment will be encouraged. We predict impacts in terms of: 1) improved training of (early stage) researchers in industry, 2) fast-track development of applied technologies, and 3) improved responses to the emerging needs of industry. Greater linkup with industry is also expected through consultancy activities indirectly generated by this hub.


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