NMMU microscope a global break-through

NMMU has been catapulted into the forefront of nanoscience research with the arrival of a state-of-the-art custom-built microscope from Japan. The high resolution transmission electron microscope (HRTEM) is the first of its kind that has been sold commercially outside of Japan and the last of a suite of four electron microscopes, costing a total R90-million, that have arrived in the past week from Tokyo manufacturer JEOL and a second manufacturer in The Netherlands.

It will allow NMMU to become the first institution in South Africa and Africa to be able to study material down to the atomic level, revealing bonds and defects which have until now been invisible, and possibilities for development in a wide range of fields.

Elated NMMU physicist Prof Jannie Neethling, who has spearheaded the drive to obtain the equipment, last week met the truck that transported the precious HRTEM from the harbour, at the new building on the south campus where it is going to be installed.

The building cost R30.5-million to build and is the most sophisticated of its kind in Africa. It includes a room within a room, a metre-thick floor, special lightning conductors and various other features to ensure that it is completely impervious to noise, vibrations, magnetic fields and temperature (according to the specifications of the HRTEM, it will maintain a temperature that fluctuates no more than 0.05°). It was finished just a week ago.

Neethling told The Herald a team of local service engineers bolstered by assistants from a consultancy in the UK will be unpacking the boxes and doing the basic installation. Besides the microscopes themselves there is a complex web of power supplies, cooling pipes (to cool the electro-magnetic lenses and the vacuum system) and analytical devices like computers and x-ray detectors – all of which needs to be put together. 

“A Japanese expert will then be brought in to do the final adjustments, hopefully in August.”

The HRTEM took a year to build and the professor last saw it in January when he flew over to Tokyo. After he had checked it with the manufacturer and found it all to his satisfaction, it was scheduled to be dismantled and packed into crates, ready for shipping across to Port Elizabeth – but then, in March, the tsunami hit.

Neethling said that besides concern about the Japanese people he had got to know, when news of the tsunami broke, there had also been some concern at NMMU as to the exact whereabouts of their precious cargo. It turned out to be safe still in its crates in the JEOL factory, although it was due shortly after that to be moved onto the ship.

The first research projects will involve doctoral students from the university working in conjunction with Sasol on fuel catalysts. Then there will be a project focusing on diamond drill bits like they use to drill through rocks on the seabed to get to oil, partnering with the company Element 6, he said.

“Then there is a planned collaboration with the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa which will focus on beneficiation in particular getting zirconium out of zircon. Zirconium is used to build the cladding around nuclear reactor fuel.

“Last of the list of already planned projects will be a collaboration with scientists from Russia, Germany and the UK that will be researching nuclear fuel materials.”

NMMU already has good quality scanning and transmission electron microscopes but neither it nor any other institution in South Africa or anywhere in Africa have so far been able to study materials down the atomic level. Up until now, Neethling and his students have had to travel to nanoscience (the study of small things) centres of excellence in Europe.

“Being able to analyse materials at the miniscule atomic level enables us to identify defects, to study bonds and to ensure quality in a vast array of materials which in turn are used to build everything from aeroplanes to water filters to fuel catalysts.”

Powder-form catalysts are already used in the fuel industry to aid the transformation of coal  into petrol or diesel, he explained.

“But the petroleum companies are always looking for more efficient ways to do the job and that’s where this equipment comes in. We can now study the atoms that make up that powder and identify possible improvements.”

To do this, one of the HRTEM’s sister microscopes is equipped with an ion beam which is used to cut microscopic slices from the study material.

“Using this machine we are then able to extract a slice from this material and place this sample which is barely visible to the naked eye, in a holder. Once it is properly positioned, an electron beam can be shone through it, to allow us to study the atoms.”











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