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Winter 2012-2013

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Materials Research Center

NanoEngineering Department Opens
Materials Research Center

"The NanoEngineering Department is focused on understanding nanomaterials and nanoscale interactions. We explore mechanical and physical properties at the nanoscale, and then exploit them to do things that we consider paradigm changing."

Kenneth Vecchio
Professor and Chair, Department of NanoEngineering

Materials Research Center Opening
PerkinElmer Representatives (L-R) Saleem Abdo and Otto Rose and Kenneth Vecchio at the opening of NanoEngineering's Materials Research Center.

NanoEngineering graduate student Scott Olson is working on a new iron-based super elastic alloy that can stretch out like a slinky without getting those frustrating twists and kinks that slinkies always get. The solution, like much of the work of developing new materials, involves exploring the material's chemistry and crystalline structure at the nanoscale, a measure thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. A little bit more or less of a particular metal or compound makes the difference in what the researcher is trying to achieve, whether it's strength, elasticity, holding up under extreme temperatures, or all of the above. For this purpose, Kenneth Vecchio, Professor and Chair of the Department of NanoEngineering, recently built a sprawling suite of new laboratories dedicated to the design, development and testing of new materials.

Here, large samples of metals are cut, ground, melted and mixed with other metals and compounds, and then forged into smaller samples of new alloys for study under special microscopes and a broad range of other analytical tools.

The NanoEngineering Department's Materials Research Center provides faculty and students – drawn from the fields of chemical engineering, materials engineering and materials science – with a shared core laboratory. It's a setup that recognizes that today's engineering and science challenges – with applications in energy technologies, medicine and information technology – will be solved through collaboration among researchers from diverse disciplines.

NanoEngineering Laboratories

Spread over 9,000 square feet in the basement of the new Structural and Materials Engineering building, the NanoEngineering Department's Materials Research Center was made possible with the support of corporate partners PerkinElmer, Instron and Struers, and complements the Nano3 Lab in the UC San Diego Division of Calit2. In addition to supporting faculty and graduate student research, the new space will support undergraduate laboratories for students pursing degrees in nanoengineering and materials engineering.

ElectronOptics and Micronanalysis Suite  Electron microscopy instruments optimized for materials research, from scanning electron microscopes to a scanning transmission electron microscope (see below).

PerkinElmer Analytical Instrumentation Suite  This lab provides a mixture of analytical tools to measure the function of new materials. For example, researchers use this lab to test how a material's unique properties, such as microstructure and stiffness, shift in response to changes in temperature.

Optical Microscope Suite  For samples that require much lower magnification than electron microscopy. The highlight of this suite is an Atomic Force Microscope that works like an old record player skipping over the sample's surface to image and measure samples at very high resolution.

Material Preparation Lab  Large samples can be cut or ground into smaller samples, polished to a high sheen or chemically etched in preparation for analysis under electron microscopes or optical microscopes.

Material Synthesis Lab  This is where metallic materials are melted and forged into new material specimens, or pushed and deformed through rolling mills into sheet materials. Instruments range from an induction heater for metals that melt at lower temperatures, such as copper or aluminum, to the Arc Melter for metals that require heat like a "lightning bolt."

Mechanical Behavior Lab  A graduate research facility and undergraduate teaching lab outfitted by Instron to test the mechanical properties of new materials, from the nanoscale to very large material samples. The instruments bend, stretch, break and deform new materials to see how well they perform under stress.

Laura Anderson
Laura Anderson, a Ph.D. candidate in materials science, demonstrates the use of induction heating to melt a novel metallic glass alloy.

Scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) enables researchers to determine the chemistry, microstructure and crystal structure of nanoparticles at much finer spatial resolution than scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Thanks to a tightly focused electron beam less than a few nanometers in size and the thin samples used, researchers can take 1,000 chemical measurements over the same distance as a single measurement taken through SEM. The capability is enormous in a field where slight changes in the composition of a few particles could significantly change the properties of the material itself. "We can couple real chemistry to the sample image so you know exactly where all the elements are and in what percentages they are in different parts of the sample," said Kenneth Vecchio.

The three images of gold nanoparticles below show the resolution and contrast provided by the STEM.

STEM secondary electron image
STEM secondary electron image of silica nanowiffle balls shows its overall topography.
STEM dark-field image
STEM dark-field image of nano-wiffle-balls shows gold nanoparticles (white specks) in stark contrast.
STEM transmitted electron image
STEM transmitted electron image reveals pores (light grey circles) in the nano-wiffle balls. The wiffle balls are hollow shells with pores created through a nanomasking method developed at UC San Diego.

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