FAU News

A unique look at the atomic structure of materials

From left to right: Dr. Sybille Reichert, FAU Chancellor, Dr. Bernd Sibler, state secretary at the Bavarian State Ministry of Education, Science and the Arts, Prof. Dr. Erdmann Spiecker, the new Chair of Micro and Nanostructure Research, Prof. Dr. Joachim Hornegger, FAU President, and Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Peukert, co-ordinator of the Cluster of Excellence 'Engineering of Advanced Materials' (EAM). (Image: FAU/Harald Sippel)

Powerful microscope to enable high-level materials research

How are atoms arranged in a material? How are they bonded together? The answers to these questions are the key to understanding how materials behave – and how they can be improved to make them even more stable, heat-resistant or conductive. Researchers at FAU have a new tool to help them here – one of the world’s best transmission electron microscopes. On 30 April, the new Institute of Micro and Nanostructure Research which houses this powerful piece of equipment was officially opened by Bernd Sibler, a state secretary at the Bavarian State Ministry of Education, Science and the Arts.

‘The new transmission electronic microscope and the Institute of Micro and Nanostructure Research have opened up brand new research opportunities with the potential to boost the international reputation of the Cluster of Excellence ‘Engineering of Advanced Materials’, the University as a whole and, last but not least, Bavaria as a key location for research. Today at FAU, with the opening of this institute and with this microscope, we have taken an important step forward – an important step for the future of research and an important step for the development of new materials to enable our natural resources to be used sustainably,’ Sibler said in his welcoming speech.

‘To ensure we are able to carry out high-level research projects, we must ensure that our equipment always includes the latest technology,’ explained FAU President Prof. Dr. Joachim Hornegger. ‘The University’s profile has been strengthened considerably with this powerful microscope and with the appointment of Prof. Spiecker, the new chair. FAU is demonstrating once again that it is an international leader in materials research.’

FAU’s Titan Themis3 300, the first microscope of its kind in Europe, will allow the atomic structures of materials to be depicted even more clearly than before. It will enable researchers to study atoms at a resolution of better than 0.1 nanometres in order to chemically identify them. By way of comparison, a human hair is around 50,000 nanometres thick. Thanks to the use of electron optics with special lens corrections and many other features, the microscope can not only measure the position of atoms extremely precisely but can also analyse the bonds between them and chemically identify materials at the atomic scale.

The bonds are especially important, as information about them is required to understand the electronic, optical, thermal and mechanical properties of materials. One of the research priorities in this area at FAU is in situ microscopy, a field which is still very new. Materials and nanostructures are specifically altered on ultra-small length scales on the microscope by heating, cooling or applying an electrical current to them. While this is happening, the materials are observed in real time to see how they react. ‘By analysing how a material reacts to such specific interference we can gain a unique insight into the relationship between the microscopic structure and the properties of a material,’ says Prof. Dr. Erdmann Spiecker, the new Chair of Micro and Nanostructure Research. ‘This is essential information that can be used to improve the properties of materials in the future.’

The development of new high-performance materials is one of the 21st century’s key technologies, affecting areas as diverse as energy reform, mobility and IT. These materials could help to produce efficient solar cells or build gas turbines that can withstand even higher temperatures than before, or provide a new approach in nanoelectronics to overcome the current limitations of silicon technology. At the same time, a precise understanding of the world of atoms and the processes that occur within it is becoming ever more important due to the decreasing size of components.

The purchase of the new microscope, which is worth 3.7 million euros, was made possible by the Cluster of Excellence ‘Engineering of Advanced Materials’ (EAM). It is now housed at the new institute led by Prof. Spiecker. The goal of the institute is to provide the required conditions for future world-class research and to introduce students and young researchers to modern electron microscopy techniques. There are currently around 20 doctoral candidates from physics, chemistry, materials science, and chemical and biological engineering working in the field of in situ microscopy as part of a Research Training Group funded by the German Research Foundation. The microscope is a key piece of equipment for the Center for Nanoanalysis and Electron Microscopy (CENEM). This interdisciplinary centre was established as part of EAM to bring together collaborative research projects which use high-resolution microscopy techniques and analytical methods, and to create new opportunities for material characterisation.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Erdmann Spiecker
Phone: +49 9131 8528603

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