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ImageAs this issue of Inquiry was being put together, we learned that our colleague Danny Shechtman had been awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of quasicrystals. This stunning discovery was based entirely on a single observation made using a transmission electron microscope - one of the workhorse tools of materials characterization. Much controversy followed the initial discovery, and the Ames Lab played a large role in settling the arguments in favor of the assertion that materials had been discovered with five-fold symmetry. Some of the iconic images from this work are shown as insets on our cover. The story of the discovery, and eventual acceptance of quasicrystals, rests very much upon sophisticated, advanced materials characterization, sometimes using techniques invented or modified “on the fly” to cope with the challenges of the unexpected discovery.

The Ames Laboratory has a unique ability to create materials. Theory, computation and not a little scientific instinct all come together here and allow us to invent new materials for energy applications. The Ames Lab also has world-leading capabilities for making the materials that it designs, to prove that the designs work. (We try very hard not to contribute to the ever-growing list of theoretically wonderful materials that cannot actually be made.)

But once you have designed a new material and made some of it, what do you do next?

Materials characterization is used to determine the properties of a material, from its chemical composition to its structure, its thermodynamic, mechanical, electrical, optical, magnetic and other properties, its chemical properties, and even the details of how electrons interact with each other inside it or on its surfaces.

Because we make materials that sometimes have novel or exotic properties, we also have a high investment in world-leading materials characterization to probe and explore those properties. When the Ames Lab first started, its job was to purify uranium metal, and it quickly developed chemical-analysis tools to characterize the purity of the product, resulting in some of the most sensitive chemical analysis techniques used in the world today. As we focus on ever more complex materials, we still work on a parallel path to develop the capability to characterize them. The result is that we have world-leading research on tools like solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (see Inquiry, 2009 issue 2) and angle-resolved photo-electron spectrometry.

In this issue of Inquiry, we are providing an update on some of the materials characterization tools and techniques under development at the Ames Lab. These provide exciting new capabilities, such as studying the behavior of single layers of atoms on crystal surfaces, seeing the internal workings of materials as they deform, or seeing how materials behave inside living cells, among many others.

The race to create new materials produces a corresponding race to develop better ways to characterize them, and one of the directions that this race leads is toward ever-increasing sensitivity. If you design materials atom-by-atom, you need to characterize them at a corresponding level, but it is very hard to see a single atom if your specimen is shaking, even by just a tiny amount. In pursuit of ever-greater sensitivity, we are beginning the design of a new building that will house ultrasensitive characterization equipment in an environment that will have ultralow vibration, electrical interference and magnetic interference, allowing the most sensitive kind of analysis anywhere on earth. Funding for the planning phase for this sensitive instrument facility has been received from DOE, and we are hard at work identifying a suitable site, developing plans and learning from our sister labs, Argonne National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which have both built similar facilities in the last few years.

 

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Alex King
Director, The Ames Laboratory