Bringing High-Performance Materials into Sharper Focus

The 3D structure of a tungsten nanoparticle sample is revealed in the above AET image. Subtle variations in how atoms are arranged can cause two seemingly identical particles to behave very differently. (Mary Scott and Jianwei Miao/UCLA)

Nanoscientists have a new tool that promises to put long-lasting batteries and super-efficient solar panels within closer reach. Called Atomic Electron Tomography, or AET for short, it lets scientists precisely map the coordinates of individual atoms within a nanoparticle, or tiny cluster of a few hundred atoms.

Think of GPS for the nano world that can pinpoint an invisible atom’s coordinates in its atomic neighborhood within a material or electronic device, much as an individual car can be located on a city map. A new paper in Science, coauthored by Simon Billinge, a physics professor at Columbia Engineering, outlines recent advances in AET and data analytics that hint at big discoveries to come.

“You can’t design high performance materials without knowing where the atoms are,” said Billinge, also a member of Columbia’s Data Science Institute. “What driverless cars will do for New York City, this technology will do for nanoscience.”

AET effectively puts 3D glasses on traditional electron microscopes by using advanced algorithms to stitch together thousands to millions of pictures of an atom, revealing its precise position among hundreds of other atoms in a material.

Coauthors of the review paper, Jianwei Miao, a physics professor at UCLA, and Peter Ercius, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, have led the development of AET. Combined with a second method for imaging nanoparticles, an x-ray scattering technique developed by Billinge at Brookhaven National Lab, AET could show how complex nanomaterials change during use.

Their ultimate goal is to manipulate individual atoms at the nanoscale to develop high-performance materials. Subtle defects in seemingly identical molecules create different properties that change how a material behaves. Isolating these structural quirks is key to developing materials tailored for specific applications, from stronger bridges to longer-lasting batteries.

“The recent advances in AET are very exciting,” said Billinge. “It’s a potentially transformative tool.”

Read the review paper: Atomic electron tomography: 3D structures without crystals

—Kim Martineau, Data Science Institute

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