Electron microscopes take first measurements of nanoscale chemistry in action

September 4, 2014 by Louise Lerner
Techniques at Argonne’s Electron Microscopy Center helped scientists get a complete picture of this chemical reaction. Over the course of the reaction, the nanorod on the top left is slowly covered with a growth of copper deposits from the solution. Maps showed the locations of the elements in the reaction: Ag, or yellow, representing silver; blue representing gold, Au; and Cu, copper, shown in red. Credit: Nestor Zaluzec / Argonne National Laboratory Electron Microscopy Center.

(Phys.org) —Scientists' underwater cameras got a boost this summer from the Electron Microscopy Center at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. Along with colleagues at the University of Manchester, researchers captured the world's first real-time images and simultaneous chemical analysis of nanostructures while "underwater," or in solution.

"This technique will allow chemists and materials scientists to explore never-before-measured stages of nanoscale processes in materials," said Argonne materials scientist Nestor Zaluzec, one of the paper's authors. Understanding how materials grow at the nanoscale level helps scientists tailor them for everything from batteries to solar cells.

Electron microscopes are a prized tool in a scientist's toolbox because they can see far smaller structures than regular light or X-ray microscopes. They use electrons, which are hundreds of times smaller than the wavelengths of light, to map the landscape all the way down to molecules and even atoms.

"We've been taking images at the atomic and nanoscale for decades, but it's usually done with the sample in a vacuum," Zaluzec said. When you're looking for , any extra molecules, even the ones in air, can cloud the picture.

But the most interesting objects or processes on Earth generally aren't found in a vacuum, so scientists have also been pushing from the beginning to get analysis and images of materials while they're in more natural environments.

Over the last decade, developments allowed scientists to take images of materials in solution, but getting chemical analysis at the same time remained inaccessible. Imagine how helpful it would be for trainers to be able to watch a baseball player pitch with simultaneous X-ray and MRI vision to watch how their muscles and bones deform under stress, or for cooks to be able to watch how the egg whites are interacting with baking powder in the cake as it bakes in the oven.

The video will load shortly
Watch copper deposited in a chemical reaction at the nanoscale

"What we need today is to be able to fully interrogate a material—not just see what it looks like, but also measure its electronic and chemical states and even physical properties, all in real time and at the highest resolution, all under environmental conditions," Zaluzec said. "All of this helps us understand why materials behave the way they do, and ultimately, to improve their properties."

Zaluzec and his collaborators reworked the staging of the so that the specialized detectors could take a clearer look at the sample. With this innovation, the team was finally able to obtain images as well as simultaneous chemical maps of where different elements are located in the sample. This lets scientists watch as nanostructures grow and change with time during chemical reactions.

The team is now working with the manufacturer Protochips Inc. to make this capability available to the scientific community.

Argonne scientist Dean Miller is already looking ahead to incorporate this capability into the next challenge: being able to take measurements with an electric voltage across the sample in liquids. This replicates the conditions under which, for example, the next generation of batteries will operate.

"Engineering new to address today's societal problems is a complex and demanding agenda," Zaluzec said. "Part of our job at the Argonne Electron Microscopy Center is to anticipate the next wave of scientific questions and problems and figure out ways to study them. To meet this challenge we are developing scientific tools to tackle both today's and tomorrow's challenges in a range of areas."

The study, "Real-time imaging and local elemental analysis of in liquids," was published in the journal Chemical Communications with researchers from the University of Manchester and BP.

Explore further: Scientists combine X-rays and microscopes for precise experiments

More information: "Real-time imaging and local elemental analysis of nanostructures in liquids." Edward A. Lewis, et al. Chem. Commun., 2014,50, 10019-10022. DOI: 10.1039/C4CC02743D

Related Stories

New technique efficiently resolves chemistry of nanoparticles

September 10, 2013

(Phys.org) —A new technique from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and FEI Company lets scientists efficiently resolve elements' locations in three dimensions. The team's technique combines scanning transmission electron ...

Visualizing short-range charge transfer at interfaces

September 13, 2013

The precise mechanisms governing the relationships between superconductivity and magnetism were examined by using advanced scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) at the Center for Nanoscale Materials by users from Argonne's ...

A new look at the solid-liquid interface

May 22, 2014

Interesting things happen at interfaces, and when solids meet liquids it is no exception. Understanding the complex phenomena that take place at this 'solid-liquid' interface could give us important clues about how to build ...

Team pioneers strategy for creating new materials

August 29, 2014

Making something new is never easy. Scientists constantly theorize about new materials, but when the material is manufactured it doesn't always work as expected. To create a new strategy for designing materials, scientists ...

Recommended for you

Nano-decoy lures human influenza A virus to its doom

October 25, 2016

To infect its victims, influenza A heads for the lungs, where it latches onto sialic acid on the surface of cells. So researchers created the perfect decoy: A carefully constructed spherical nanoparticle coated in sialic ...

New method increases energy density in lithium batteries

October 24, 2016

Yuan Yang, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Columbia Engineering, has developed a new method to increase the energy density of lithium (Li-ion) batteries. He has built a trilayer structure that ...

Nanofiber coating prevents infections of prosthetic joints

October 24, 2016

In a proof-of-concept study with mice, scientists at The Johns Hopkins University show that a novel coating they made with antibiotic-releasing nanofibers has the potential to better prevent at least some serious bacterial ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.