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Microscopes being installed at the SIF

The crates and boxes have been arriving for almost a month now, and it’s now time for some serious unpacking: Ames Laboratory is in the process of installing nearly $6 million in microscope equipment at its soon-to-be-opened Sensitive Instrument Facility.

The equipment, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and laboratory contractor Iowa State University, includes a focused ion beam microscope (FIB), a field-emission scanning electron microscope (FE-SEM), and an aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM). Representatives from the manufacturer, FEI Company, of Hillsboro, Ore., are at the Sensitive Instrument Facility during the months of October and November to install and provide training support for the FE-SEM and the FIB.


A technician from FEI runs tests on the new focused ion beam microscope. The images on screen were produced by the new equipment.

The FIB adds unique capabilities to Ames Laboratory’s and Iowa State’s research capabilities; not just an imaging tool, the ion beam can also be used to very precisely machine materials on the atomic scale.

“This tool is a significant addition to our research arsenal,” said Matthew Kramer, director of the Division of Materials Science and Engineering for the Laboratory. “In standard ion milling, it can be very difficult to select very precise areas, and the process is fraught with a lot of trial and error. The FIB is very direct. I can clearly see the area, I can harvest out that specific area, and do further analysis with microscopy.”

The field-emission scanning electron microscope (FE-SEM) is an ultra-high resolution microscope that creates finely detailed images of surfaces at the nanometer scale. It can analyze the chemistry, surface topography, and phases of a wide range of materials; organic and inorganic.

In November, the existing upgraded transmission electron microscope  housed in Wilhelm Hall at the Ames Laboratory was also moved to the new research facility, located adjacent to Iowa State’s Applied Sciences Center. In December, an aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscope (S/TEM) will be delivered, which will enable researchers to image the packing of atoms. Collectively the equipment housed within the Sensitive Instrument Facility, combined with on-site wet and dry preparation labs, provides a unique setting where multiple steps of a material’s structure-property characteristics can be completed in one location.

“Beyond static imaging and chemical analyses, now we can actually do experiments to characterize how materials evolve,” said Kramer. “We now have the ability to look at materials at different temperatures, under loads, and in the presence of electric fields. We can actually watch the phase changes of these materials happen as they happen. This is going to broaden our research capabilities considerably, and the scientific community at the Laboratory and university is excited for its future in this facility.”

The $9.9 million Sensitive Instrument Facility was constructed in 2014 and 2015 and specially sited and designed to protect the new instrumentation from the vibrations and electromagnetic interference that would undermine their accuracy. The facility is slated for a grand opening in May 2016, with training on the instruments to be ongoing prior to the event.