Imperial College London

£10m funding towards new cryo-EPS facility for sustainable research

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An image of a cryopreservation of biological sample

A £10.3 million EPSRC grant will fund a unique cryo-microscopy facility for Engineering and Physical Sciences in the Department of Materials.

Key environmental challenges - such as clean energy, water and sustainability - have materials solutions at their core. Researchers in the Department of Materials have been tackling scientific objectives around global climate change to address these key challenges. 

The new grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will fund a cryo-enabled, multi-microscope facility that is unique worldwide. The facility will act as a collaborative hub and allow scientists to tackle the UK ambition for a sustainable zero-carbon future.

Tackling sustainability at a new level

Light elements - such as hydrogen, lithium, carbon, sulfur - are critical to a host of new technologies associated with a transition to a sustainable future society. They have a key role in materials systems, such as hydrogen production and storage, battery systems and even the decarbonisation of industrial processes. However, there is currently a limited understanding of how these materials behave at an atomic scale because they are sensitive to beam-damage in conventional microscopes. 

The new cryo-EPS facility will take research to a new level by enabling the quantitative, atomic-scale investigation of these light elements. This is an opportunity for a step-change in fundamental understanding - which could lead to new scientific insights about their structure, chemistry and behaviour that will drive technological innovation for a sustainable future.

Dr Baptiste Gault and Dr Finn Giuliani are co-leading the new project.

Dr Gault said: “Cryo-enabled microscopy & microanalysis allows us to stop the time and take snapshots of fast-evolving systems, thereby capturing the transient states that are responsible for a material’s evolution in operation. 

A single technique cannot give us all the information we need, so we need workflows enabling us to deploy multiple microscopy and microanalysis on an identical location or correlatively on the same specimen. Then by combining the data streams we can reveal all that needs to be known about nearly every atom of the material.

I am glad that the facility can benefit from all the preliminary work that I have been leading in my group at the Max-Planck Institute für Eisenforschung (Iron Research) in Düsseldorf in Germany, and this collaboration between our two world-leading institutions is only the beginning as there are plans developing to have more shared appointments to spearhead these efforts”.

Dr Giuliani added: "Looking forward, we aim to use this facility to study complex systems such as the liquid-solid interfaces around nanoparticles or biological materials."

Critical for energy transition

New insights into the structure, chemistry and behaviour of light materials will be critical for the UK transition to net-zero pollution by 2050. This new insight into critical materials at an atomic scale will support the development of more efficient catalysts for sustainable fuels and chemicals, safer and more sustainable battery systems,

Professor Mary Ryan FREng leads the College's Transition to Zero Pollution initiative and is a co-investigator on this project.

She explains "In order to deliver the energy transition we need to create new technologies that are efficient, low cost and sustainable. Whilst a lot of progress has already been made in renewable energy generation and storage we are still limited in our fundamental understanding - and this leads to challenges in optimisation of performance, safety and lifetime.

This facility will help us build a new understanding of materials from the smallest observable scale – knowledge that will enable us to build macroscale devices"

A globally unique set-up

The set-up of the new cryo-EPS facility is unique worldwide. It will allow samples to be transferred under high vacuum and at cryo conditions between three instruments. The combination of these instruments will give the UK a powerful characterisation capability.

  • Cryo atom probe uniquely positioned to quantitively measure the chemical composition of light mobile elements at the nanoscale and in 3D.
  • Cryo-transmission Electron Microscope with a vacuum-cryo holder and optimised to measure the structure of sensitive samples and also their local bonding environment
  • Cryo plasma FIB to allow samples to be prepared for both the atom probe and TEM which have both low contamination and also little damage, and able to perform large-scale 3D imaging.

The first of these facilities, the cryo atom probe, arrived in March 2021 and will be installed in the Harvey Flower Microscopy Centre, Department of Materials. It is hoped that the full suite will be available for UK users in future, with an exact date to be confirmed.

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Kayleigh Brewer

Kayleigh Brewer
Department of Materials

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