Scientists at SINTEF/NTNU and the University of Oslo have been awarded NOK 25 million by the Research Council of Norway for investments in equipment for surface analysis.
“This will be one of the biggest and most important investments we have ever had in advanced material characterisation,” says Bjørn Steinar Tanem of SINTEF Materials and Chemistry. “It means a huge impulse for our research, and will enable us to carry out exciting new projects both for Norwegian industry and in the context of European research.”
The funding has been awarded as part of the Research Council’s ”Large-scale Infrastructure” programme and, as the name suggests, it will be used to purchase items of infrastructure to upgrade this field of research.
Important, wide-ranging field of research
Surface analysis is of importance for most fields of research that deal with materials. If we can understand the structure of a material at atomic and electronic level, we can also understand its performance, and how this can be improved.
Surface analysis is an aspect of both basic and industrial research, in areas where corrosion, oxidation, wear resistance and adhesion are important. If we are to develop efficient material systems, for example for solar cells and fuel cells, their bulk, surface and existing interfaces also need to be characterised. Analyses of this sort are important for relating production methods to material properties and for optimising these,” says Tanem’s colleague Spyros Diplas.
As an example, Diplas mentions solar cell research, in which metal/oxide and oxide/oxide interfaces are of decisive importance for performance.
“In the field of catalysis, where most reactions take place on the surface, we need to have control of the structure and composition at nanoscale level. Surface analysis methods have depth resolution and they analyse the uppermost nanometres of a surface,” says Diplas.
The two scientists point out that surface analysis in nanotechnology is growing in importance. “When the dimensions of a material decrease dramatically, the ratio of surface area and volume becomes much higher, and its properties are more dominated by its surfaces. This means that surface analysis gains in importance,” they say.
In their application, the three research partners have specified the equipment in which they wish to invest.
The application cover two advanced photo-electron spectrophotometers (XPS), which will enable them to perform extra surface-sensitive analyses, a secondary ion mass spectrometer (SIMS) which is sensitive enough to detect trace elements, light elements and parts of complex molecules, and an instrument that is specially designed for research on catalysis.
“These are instruments that we see in the context of what we have already built up in our own milieu, as well as use in connection with electron microscopy, particularly transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and theoretical modelling, on which we are also currently working,” says Tanem.
“To be able to predict how the structure of a material and thus its performance can change is becoming ever more important. In this case, we are also building up our activity on modelling, in order to have an efficient tool for materials development.”
The spectroscopes are large; each of them takes up between 10 and 20 square metres of floor space, and a long series of meetings is under way in Trondheim and Oslo with the aim of identify good solutions for siting them.
The instruments also complement each other. For example, Spyros Diplas says that XPS analysis provide important information about the composition, chemical state and electron structure of surfaces.
The Material Physics group at SINTEF Materials and Chemistry will be responsible for the equipment, and the group predicts that exciting new possibilities will emerge from the award. “We have expertise in advanced material characterisation, and we are looking forward to discussing new possibilities with both existing and new industrial contacts and with colleagues in the university and institute sector.”
“We want to start projects based on these new instruments as soon as possible, and we will keep other groups around us continually updated on how the project is evolving. Among other things, we intend to organise seminars and/or single-topic days based on the specific requirements of individual user groups. Close dialogue with industry and user groups is essential as a means of building up activity based on this equipment,” say the two SINTEF scientists.
The way ahead
The first phase of the work for the research team will involve intense efforts to set up the labs and get under way.
“This is complex equipment with a long delivery time, so we will just have to be a little patient before we can start to produce data. But we will use this time well, and all potential users of surface analysis equipment have a lot to look forward to,” say Spyros Diplas and Bjørn Steinar Tanem.