With a novel idea, a lot of work and some of the world’s most sophisticated equipment, researchers at McMaster University have developed a new way to study the structures of complex surfaces, opening the door to future discoveries in materials, energy and technology.
Scientists from the Canadian Centre for Microscopy on the McMaster campus, working with a colleague from Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France, developed the new method by using transmission electron microscopy. It’s a technique so powerful that it can be used to visualize and identify individual atoms at magnifications of several million times.
The centre’s mandate is to provide unique electron microscopy capabilities and expertise to researchers working on a broad range of national and international materials-research projects. It is home to one of the world's most advanced and powerful electron microscopes, the Titan 80-300 Cubed.
The new research appears in the prestigious journal Nature. The scientists describe how they developed the method for looking at metal oxides, in this case strontium titanate, a notoriously challenging surface to study, but one that holds promise for many applications, including efficient lighting, energy generation and future information technology systems.
Gianluigi Botton, scientific director of the centre, said that until now, it had been nearly impossible to completely elucidate the atomic structure of the surface oxide from that of the material itself, due to the physical limitations of existing techniques.
Now, having shown that transmission electron microscopy can do the job, scientists can apply the same method to other challenging surfaces, with the promise of making it easier to split water to extract hydrogen for fuel, or to invent completely new types of electronic devices, for example.
“Surfaces are all around us,” Botton explained. “Understanding their properties at this level can open up many possibilities.”