New materials microscope is a first in the U.S.

Researchers at UC Davis will soon have a new and very special tool to examine the structure and composition of materials at an atomic scale. The new Focused Ion Beam microscope, or dual-beam FIB, now being installed in the College of Engineering’s Center for Nano-Micromanufacturing (NCM2) is one of the first three instruments of its advanced type in the world — and currently the only one of its kind in the U.S..

“It will be transformative for materials science here,” said Klaus van Benthem, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. “We’ve never had images of this brilliance before.”

Materials scientists try to understand the structure and properties of both new and existing materials. Breakthroughs in technology from electronics to solar panels to industrial catalysts often depend on new discoveries about materials.

The microscope was manufactured by FEI, Inc.

Klaus van Benthem with the new instrument.

Klaus van Benthem with the new instrument.

of Hillsborough, Ore. and has a list price of $1.75 million. Purchase of the instrument was mostly supported by a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

The dual-beam FIB instrument includes both a scanning electron microscope and a focused beam of gallium ions that can be tuned across a wide energy range, van Benthem said. The gallium beam can be used for imaging, or more significantly it can be used to remove layers of material on a scale of two to five nanometers. Researchers can use it to generate three-dimensional images of the structure of new materials, or to prepare exquisitely thin samples for transmission electron microscopy.

It’s like an archaeologist using a brush, rather than a shovel, to carefully remove layers of dirt and expose fragile remains.

“The name of the game is to remove material atom by atom, without damaging the surface underneath,” van Benthem said.

The FIB will also be combined with other instruments at UC Davis to measure the chemical composition of materials on the atomic scale, or to study how individual crystals are oriented. It can also be used to “write” tiny electronic circuits on to surfaces.

Work on setting up the machine is already underway, and graduate students will play a key role in running the instrument and training new users.

“Students can learn a great deal from working with a cutting-edge instrument like this,” van Benthem said.

The microscope was manufactured in the Czech Republic and is the first to be shipped to the U.S.. So far, two others have been installed worldwide, in Japan and in Germany, van Benthem said.

The Center for Nano-Micromanufacturing provides facilities to campus researchers and off-campus users for work on nanomaterials and microfabrication, including a class 100 clean room facility. The FIB microscope will be available to both campus and off-campus users in early April, and van Benthem said he’s already getting requests from potential users around the world.

“It’s really going to put us on the map,” he said.

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