Developing a nanotech 'Swiss Army knife'
From micro-electronics to life sciences, nanotechnology plays a key role in many areas of modern life. As new advances enhance the capabilities of what is sometimes referred to as ‘molecular manufacturing’ and broaden its range of applications, nanotechnology is expected to assume greater and greater importance. It is a technology which not only delivers major benefits to society, but which also has the potential to make European industry more competitive.
To make the best use of nanotechnology, however, researchers and businesses need the most advanced and effective tools. FIBLYS and its direct follow-on project, UnivSEM, achieved a major breakthrough in precisely this area, creating a unique new machine which is vividly summed up by one of the project leaders, Dr Jaroslav Jiruse of the Czech company TESCAN, as ‘a Swiss Army knife’ of nanotechnology tools. Developed to the point of full commercial use by FIBLYS, the machine is currently being further enhanced by UnivSEM.
The radical advance achieved by the FIBLYS-UnivSEM ‘multi-nano’ tool was that it enabled operators, for the first time, to use just one machine to carry out a range of processes which previously required separate pieces of apparatus: high-power microscopic imaging of the prepared material by combining atomic-force and electron microscopy; analysing it by a number of various methods; manipulating it; and, finally, modifying it and creating new structures (e.g. slicing it or drilling into it or depositing on it). One immediate benefit is that this saves time since samples do not have to be moved between devices and set up again each time. It also saves money, with multiple machines – each one potentially costing millions of euros - able to be replaced by a single one.
Of more direct significance to the researchers and operators themselves, perhaps, removing the need to switch between machines eliminates the risk of contamination or oxidation of the sample. “It also means that researchers can be certain they are looking at exactly the same area of the sample,” says Dr Jiruse, a leading participant in FIBLYS and currently Project Coordinator of UnivSEM, whose company manufactured the device. “Because you magnify the specimen many thousand times, you are only looking at a very tiny area. So when you move the sample between various instruments you have problems locating exactly the same place,” he explains.
At the heart of the machine there are a number of specialised tools, including two microscopes providing detailed imaging of the sample. The first is a Scanning Electron Microscope which provides immense power of magnification. Magnifying an area of 10x10 nanometres into an image of 10x10 centimetres, for example, is equivalent to magnifying a human footprint on the moon to an image the size of the moon itself. The second, an Atomic Force Microscope, reveals the three-dimensional atomic structure of the sample.
Another key part of the machine is a Focused Ion Beam. This has the ability to modify the specimen – for example, by etching it, cutting it or milling it in order to see inside it or prepare a cross-section for analysis. It can also be used to deposit layers of additional material on the specimen and in this way create new materials or structures. “One area where this is of current interest is developing new surfaces for solar cell technology,” explains Dr Jiruse. The toolkit of this remarkable nanotech ‘Swiss Army knife’ is completed by an array of analytical devices using techniques such as Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy or 3D Electron Backscatter Diffraction. Most significant is a Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometer, sensitive enough to analyse molecules at a level of parts per million. Previously, this type of spectrometer had to be housed in large, expensive, standalone, machines. Incorporating one into the ‘Swiss Army knife’ was one of the major achievements of FIBLYS-UnivSEM.
If nanotechnology is the way of the future, the FIBLYS-UnivSEM machine marks an important milestone. It has provided a tool which will undoubtedly help Europe take major strides forward, with benefits that are not only economic, in terms of industrial competitiveness and jobs, but also social, in terms of the many advances that nanotechnology is already bringing into multiple aspects of our lives.