TECHNOLOGY INNOVATIONS: Nanoscale Snapshot

December 1, 2008
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A dynamic transmission electron microscope provides a snapshot of the transformation of nanoscale structures.

Curtis Brown, Thomas LaGrange and Judy Kim make adjustments to the dynamic transmission electron microscope. (Photo by Marcia Johnson/LLNL.)


Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have achieved a milestone in materials science and electron microscopy by taking a high-resolution snapshot of the transformation of nanoscale structures. Using the lab’s dynamic transmission electron microscope (DTEM), Judy Kim and colleagues peered into the microstructure and properties of reactive multilayer foils (also known as nanolaminates) with 15-nanosecond-scale resolution.

“This is the first time that a detailed study of these reactive nanolaminates has exposed what is happening in the self-propagating high-temperature synthesis zone,” Kim said.

Time-resolved images of nanolaminates show a brief change in structure with a short cellular phase separation during cooling. Observing short-lived behavior (i.e., how a chemical reaction, structural deformation or phase transformation occurs) is not easy, but is key to understanding many of the basic phenomena at the heart of materials science, chemistry and biology. The ability to directly observe and characterize these complex events leads to a fundamental understanding of properties such as reactivity, stability and strength, and helps in the design of new and improved materials and devices.

Unprecedented Imaging

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) has evolved dramatically in recent years and can spatially resolve microstructural details of phase and structure, but it can’t collect in increments of less than a millisecond. That’s where Livermore’s DTEM comes in. It provides scientists with the ability to image transient behavior with an unprecedented combination of spatial and temporal resolution: nanometers and nanoseconds.

“Direct real-space observations of phase transformations on the nanosecond scale have allowed us to relate the formation mechanism in reactive multilayer foils to binary alloy solidification,” Kim said. “This conclusion is based upon transient features that could not have been found using any other technique.”

Because the team needed access to time and real-space that is impossible to study using traditional methods such as conventional in situ TEM (limited to video rates) or ultra-fast diffraction (which presently lacks direct real-space imaging capabilities), the DTEM fit the bill.

“The ability to determine not only crystal structure but also morphological evolution of dynamic events on the nanoscale has far-reaching implications for the study of materials science, non-equilibrium processes and the behavior of matter on very fine scales of length and time,” Kim said.

Other Livermore researchers involved in the project include Thomas LaGrange, Bryan Reed, Mitra Taheri, Michael Armstrong, Wayne King, Nigel Browning and Geoffrey Campbell. The research first appeared in the September 12 edition of the journal Science.

For more information, visit www.llnl.gov.

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