19 June 2019

Extreme high-resolution microscope coming to Utrecht

Utrecht University is getting a new transmission electron microscope, which will be one of the most comprehensive electron microscopes for materials studies in the Netherlands, and one of the best in the world. Researchers will be able to use the microscope to study materials, nanoparticles, and 2D materials such as graphene with a resolution of a single atom.

“We’ll have the best-equipped microscope in the Netherlands in the field of materials studies”, says Marijn van Huis, head of the Electron Microscopy Centre. “Transmission electron microscopes are completely different from microscopes that use sources of light. Instead of using light, we see using a focused bundle of electrons, which provides a much higher-resolution image.”

New technique

The new microscope provides much clearer images than the current models, which makes it possible to see even extremely light atoms, such as hydrogen. Researchers can also examine materials in greater detail. “With the new microscope, we can not only look at atoms, but also at the electrons surrounding them”, Van Huis explains. “That way, we can also see if the atoms carry an electric charge, and whether they are in an excited state. That’s important for the study of catalysts, for example, in which the atom’s charge determines whether it is catalytically active. With this technology, we can see where the catalytically active atoms are located in the material, and we can study how to activate them.”

The new technology also exposes magnetism and optical characteristics of semiconductors. With this knowledge, researchers can develop and design much better materials for screens, batteries, electronic chips, catalysis materials, and photovoltaic cells, so that devices can use less energy, the industry can use less raw materials, and energy can be converted from sunlight more efficiently.

The microscope is around four meters high, and operates on 300,000 high voltage

The university has planned on purchasing such a microscope for some time, but now the choice has been made for one built by ThermoFisherScientific, an American company that has a large research and production facility in Eindhoven. The microscope will be financed by the ‘Netherlands Electron Microscopy Infrastructure’ (NEMI) National Road Map, wherein scientists from Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht participate. A budget of five million euros has been set aside for the new acquisition.

Housing

Finding a suitable home for the new microscope was hard work, explains Van Huis. “The microscope is around four meters high, and operates on 300,000 high voltage. It also needs compressed air, coolant, a good heat ventilation, and the building has to be free of vibrations.” The microscope will be temporarily housed in the Electron Microscopy facility in the Veterinary Medicine building when it arrives sometime in 2020.

Its permanent home will be in the David de Wied Building, once the renovations there are complete. “We’ll eventually have four advanced electron microscopes there, with the biggest being this new addition. We’ll be one of the first to have this new technology in-house, and we expect that lots of researchers will want to come to Utrecht from the Netherlands and abroad.”