They hold the world record for creating the smallest test tube and for writing the smallest version of the periodic table on a human hair. So, what better way for this team of scientists from The University of Nottingham to send a 90th birthday message to the Queen - but on hair from a Corgi dog.
The interdisciplinary group of scientists and engineers, stars of the award winning YouTube channel Periodic Table of Videos, decided to demonstrate the facilities of their new £12m Nanoscale and Microscale Research Centre (NMRC) in the School of Chemistry in typical fashion.
The message saying ‘Happy 90th birthday Your Majesty’ has been etched by Dr Michael Fay from the Faculty of Engineering and Dr Christopher Parmenter from the School of Pharmacy using a Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM). The machine is capable of etching and manipulating materials with nanoscale precision by a focused beam of Gallium (Ga) ions while imaging the structure by a beam of electrons.
The centre, officially opened this week, bristles with the very latest in microscopy. It allows us to peer into the fundamental world of the very, very small and addresses some of the major challenges facing humanity – medicine, materials for energy production, storage, electronic devices and novel catalysts.
Andrei Khlobystov, Professor of Nanomaterials and Director of the NMRC in the Faculty of Science, said: “This centre will be one of the largest and most advanced clusters of instrumentation for nanoscale and microscale research in the UK. We anticipate it will have significant regional, national and global impact.”
These world-class facilities offer expertise in nanoscale characterisation, specialised sample preparation and micro/nano structure fabrication. It enables and enhances cross faculty, institutional and industrial collaborations and provides a first-class training environment for researchers across the world.
The NMRC facility will host a unique suite of 20 major instruments, including 14 electron microscopes with a diverse range of capabilities to image and carry out analytical investigation on a wide variety of materials. The Centre will also host a state of the art electron beam lithography system; a powerful suite of surface characterisation equipment (X-ray photoelectron spectrometers, Raman microscopy); and a comprehensive sample preparation laboratory.
What is nanoscale and microscale analysis?
This research is all about the studying structure and chemical composition of matter at the nanoscale. It is a world where everything is measured in nanometres (nm) – one human hair is 80,000 nm wide; a strand of DNA is two nm wide.
The NMRC enables the imaging and analytical investigation of a wide variety of hard and soft materials, in bulk, thin film or nanostructured form - from metallic alloys, ceramics and composites, and geological minerals and semiconductors, to polymers and pharmaceuticals, and biological and botanical specimens.
What will it do?
The Centre has expertise in cryo-SEM and cryo-FIB-SEM (Focused Ion Beam Scanning Electron Microscopy). This allows samples to be rapidly frozen, prepared and then imaged. It preserves the initial material morphology and chemistry of the fully hydrated specimen by preventing water loss due to vacuum operation – an important step forward in the analysis of biological samples.
A FEG-TEM (Field Emission Gun Transmission Electron Microscope) is capable of providing very high resolution images down to a level of a couple of Angstroms – less than 0.19 of a nanometre. It means they can study the nanoscale morphological and chemical features in cells or different materials down to atomic levels.
The NMRC offers particle characterisation instrumentation with NanoSight and qNano systems to view samples under microscope and use the Nanoparticle Tracking Analysis (NTA) technology to determine the particle size and size distribution. The qNano system from Izon is a bench-top system for fluid-borne nanoparticle analysis and allows raw or analysed data can be viewed in real-time.
Two X-ray photoelectron spectrometers (XPS) provide elemental mapping and chemical state identification of the top 10 nm of a material’s surface. The XPS instruments can analyse cryogenically frozen samples and are equipped with hot stages. High resolution depth profiling of organic materials (such as biological samples and polymers) can also be carried out to provide 3D characterisation of a sample.
Raman spectroscopy and microscopy provides a uniquely sensitive tool for the non-invasive identification of the chemical and physical state of a wide range of samples, rapidly providing quantifiable identification of bulk and surface species. The confocal set-up of the microscope provides clearer images and the ability to perform depth profiling studies of samples. This instrument is ideally suited for materials and pharmaceutical characterisation, tissue imaging and chemical identification.
What has been achieved?
By determining soot particle size distribution, the centre has worked with industry to reduce soot contamination in engine oil. This opened the door for the development of preventative strategies and screening processes.
Using Raman microscopy they have been able to carry out chemical analysis and imaging to characterise damage to bleached hair.
They have investigated corrosion of satellite chips, contributed to development of new coatings and paints, and pioneered new generation of catalysts.
The world’s smallest periodic table
In December 2010, The University of Nottingham entered the Guinness World Records for creating the smallest periodic table, a record which it still holds.
The table was written on a single strand of hair using an ion beam writer and scanning electron microscope (SEM) and measures just 89.67 x 46.39 microns and approximately one million would fit on a post-it note. The ion beam writer and SEM, also known as a FIB-SEM, is available at the NMRC and differs from a standard SEM through the inclusion of a second column, which uses a Gallium source rather than electron source. This beam of ions can be used to image or ablate material selectively. The FIB can remove material in specific patterns, for example a thin strip to give a cross-section through a sample. In this way the microscopist can obtain data on the internal structure of a sample, which would otherwise be hidden in a traditional SEM.
To commemorate the opening of the NMRC, a symposium on ‘Low-Dimensional Materials’ was held in the School of Chemistry. The symposium focused on the systems where energy or matter is confined at least in one of the three dimensions and exhibit extraordinary electronic, optical, thermal, mechanical and chemical properties.
The new NMRC was official opened by Professor Sir David Greenaway, Vice-Chancellor of The University of Nottingham and Professor Dame Jessica Corner, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at The University of Nottingham. The event was attended by guest-speakers, selected representatives of industry, equipment manufacturers and research funding organisations from the UK, Europe and the USA.
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for three years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.
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