Integrated atomic force and confocal fluorescence lifetime imaging microscope with fibre-coupled infrared detector for materials research

Lead Research Organisation: Loughborough University
Department Name: Materials

Abstract

Our vision for the equipment is to make a step-change in the UK's engineering and physical sciences (EPS) research by establishing an area of niche capability and facilitating world leading materials science. To achieve this, we propose to provide a world leading instrument with a unique configuration for materials research as well as develop a critical mass of academic and industrial users, training the next generation of researchers in state-of-the-art techniques.

We propose to purchase two complimentary pieces of equipment to be assembled and integrated in a single instrument: a multi-purpose atomic force microscope (AFM), and a confocal fluorescence lifetime imaging microscope (CFLIM). The top half is an AFM that enables characterisation of topography, mechanical, and electrical properties at the nanoscale of a wide range of materials, from semiconductors for PV devices to scaffolds for tissue engineering. The bottom half is a high-end confocal microscope which, instead of imaging based on the emission wavelength of the fluorescent labels in the sample, can measure their fluorescence lifetime, which is heavily influenced by the molecular environment. Our instrument presents a world unique feature which is a fibre-couple infrared detector to measure the fluorescent decay of semiconductor materials. There are no other AFM-CFLIM systems in the world with detection in the infrared, therefore our equipment would be one of a kind. Our equipment will become a global reference facility thanks to its unique configuration for materials science and establish a niche of research capability.

The combination of AFM and CFLIM will shed light on key relationships between sets of properties which are not fully understood yet and will lead to the improvement and development of materials. It will benefit multiple research areas, such as: Solar technology and Energy Materials , as it would allow the correlation of crystalline structure, conductivity, and charge carrier lifetime, to maximize the efficiency of PV materials; Polymer Materials and Soft Matter Physics, where the understanding of the relationship between surface properties and the bulk chemical environment will boost the development of better and more sustainable functional coatings; and Biomaterials, as the provision of a full picture of the degradation of carriers and drug delivery will result in longer lasting implants. The instrument will also lead to new science, as the AFM cantilever has the potential for manipulation at the nanoscale. Moreover, we will provide a powerful tool for those industries that currently lack the knowledge that can be provided by the instrument, through our industrial partners that are either supporting this bid directly or partners in the EPRSC grants involved.

Planned Impact

Over the long term, the establishment of a global leading facility and the training of a new generation of researchers in a world leading instrument will result in an increase of the UK economic and research competitiveness. The use of AFM and CFLIM (as separate instruments) for materials science is a relatively new field, in which the UK is starting to establish itself (Kuimova at Imperial), and there is significant scope for developing a niche research capability.

This facility will create impact in a number of high priority areas including energy, sustainable materials and healthcare:

Energy

The success of any economy will increasingly rely on energy security, and the development of a diverse energy portfolio. The understanding and improvement of thermoelectric and PV materials, enabled by the proposed facility, will therefore be an integral part of this strategy. The development of such technology in the UK will see the growth of new energy-related industries.
A reduction in energy usage is arguably one of the key societal challenges for the next century and over the next 5-20 years an improvement in the efficiency of thermoelectric and PV devices could be expected as a result of the activities carried out on this equipment. Given that up to 60% of the energy in fuel burnt (in car engines for example) is lost as waste heat, this improvement could easily save >3% of the UK's annual energy usage. PV devices with improved efficiency will contribute to meet the targets of the UK PV Solar strategy, set to produce 15% of total energy production from renewable sources by 2020.

Sustainable materials

Waste production in the UK is a significant issue with 80% of materials used in manufacturing products ending up as waste, landfill approaching capacity and a 40% increase in consumer waste projected between 2016 and 2020. The development of new sustainable plastics and coatings, enabled by this facility, will help to fulfil the Resources and Waste Strategy for England that the Government set out in December 2018. By harnessing the knowledge generated by the equipment, a new emerging industry on sustainable functional coatings will develop and the UK economy will grow. According to Eurostat, the UK is now third in the EU in value of production (986 M euros) of paints and varnishes after France (1.1B euros) and Germany (1.5B euros). The understanding provided by this instrument will give the UK an impetus over those competitors and allow the country to become a world leader in a new area of functional coatings.

Healthcare

In England alone there are 15m people with long-term conditions who are estimated to account for 70% of the total health and social care spend. Unfortunately, patient long-term medication adherence is typically poor within long-term disease patient populations; only about 50% of patients adhere to their treatment regimes. The development of new medication delivering implants, boosted by the knowledge generated at our facility on new nanocomposite carriers, will improve long term treatment and patient outcomes by reducing the burden directly on patients to follow current strict regimes.
In summary, it is expected that the proposed facility will have national and global impact during its lifetime and into the future across many areas, including those outlined above.

Publications

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