Research group awarded £1.35m

Issued: Mon, 13 Jun 2016 16:48:00 BST

The University’s Materials and Condensed Matter Physics research group has been awarded £1.35m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to install a state-of-the-art Focused Ion Beam (FIB) microscope.‌

Ian MacLaren 450The instrument uses a beam of an ionised noble gas (such as neon or xenon) that is scanned across a sample to create an image.‌

It is one of only four currently in the UK and will have unique capabilities for advanced materials characterisation. The FIB is anticipated to enable research that spans microelectronic development, studies of geological materials, and even aspects of virology.

The FIB instrument is like a “Swiss army penknife” for the nanoworld. In addition to producing high-contrast microscopy images, the scanned beam can also be used to selectively erode structural features. It will be used to scalpel, drill and polish material with nanometre-scale precision and so is ideal for nanotechnology development. In “serial sectioning mode” the ion beam can be used to slice a sample into successive sections whose images can then be recombined to generate three-dimensional images of structures. This mode is particularly useful for the study of buried features and cracks. Furthermore, by injecting gas into the imaging chamber, it can also be used to deposit material wherever the beam is positioned, thereby allowing objects to be welded, manipulated and repaired.

Dr Ian MacLaren, senior lecturer in the School of Physics & Astronomy, said that the FIB microscope would allow the group to unlock the full potential of its functional capabilities for new materials research.

“Focused Ion Beam microscopes use ions to sculpt or alter materials with nanometre resolution, and these have become essential to modern nanoscience and nanotechnology. The new instrument will enable completely new developments to be made in TEM sample preparation, nanopatterning and other areas. Immediate applications will include research into III-V semiconductors with colleagues in engineering, and imaging low contrast virus samples in collaboration with the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences.”‌


This investment builds on the long track record of the Materials and Condensed Matter Physics group for microscopy, materials characterisation and instrument development. It will be particularly important in enabling new research opportunities on the group’s flagship instrument, an aberration-corrected transmission electron microscope that is able to investigate materials right down to the scale of individual atoms.

Previous atom-resolved work has been limited by an inability to prepare specimens completely free of influence from the beam: the new FIB’s inert ion beam will remove these limitations. As a consequence, the FIB will also be made available to users across the UK and has already generated overseas interest, including from industrial and academic collaborators based in Sweden and Japan. Enabling such collaborative opportunities is of particular importance to the EPSRC award. Once installed, the new noble gas beam instrument will be available to users from across the University, as well as to academic and industrial users from across Scotland and beyond. Researchers interested in using the unique cluster of instruments, including the new FIB, are encouraged to contact the Kelvin Nanocharacterisation Centre by emailing:

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