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Electron Microscopy: Watching Atoms


In recent years a breakthrough has taken place in the field of electron microscopy allowing us to see atoms, watch their motion and study their chemical bonding. The successful correction of microscope lens aberrations is transforming the field. ORNL has one of the world’s most advanced microscopy facilities, including six aberration-corrected instruments. Atomic structure and bonding controls the properties of all materials. ORNL’s imaging strategy is to incorporate these advanced tools into its broad range of materials science and engineering, chemical sciences and nanoscience programs to generate new fundamental understanding of critical energy processes leading to new, more efficient materials.

In the field of solar energy, ORNL uses these tools to probe the structure and chemistry of defects that limit the cell’s efficiency, including new imaging modes that directly map cell efficiency defect by defect. In battery materials we are investigating in-situ techniques for observing and correlating microstructure to the state of charge/discharge and number of cycles. Oxides are highly attractive as future spintronic materials due to their exotic properties; interfaces and superlattices show a wealth of intriguing phenomena that can only be unraveled through atomic-scale characterization coupled to first principles theory.

Two-dimensional materials such as graphene and chalcogenides are equally exciting, and today’s microscopes can investigate the structure and bonding of individual point and extended defects, even measure local optical and plasmonic properties.

We can even watch atoms move, change configurations and react. Today is the most exciting time in the history of the microscope.

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