Opening the Eye-Popping Possibilities of the Smallest Scales

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Three scientists infront of a computer station.Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Lab

Whether producing simple metallic pads for probing exciting new nanoscale systems or structuring more complicated geometries into silicon and other materials, nanofabrication lies at the heart of much of the work at Brookhaven's Center for Functional Nanomaterials. Inside the nanofabrication facility are three bays filled with state-of-the-art equipment available for use by the CFN staff, the Brookhaven community and all external users.

"To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle," observed George Orwell. Yet great insights often come when those great efforts are made. That's particularly true for the Office of Science's Nanoscale Science Research Centers (NSRCs), especially their efforts in scanning probe microscopies.

Scanning probes – which include scanning electron, scanning transmission and others – allow scientists to see incredible details at astonishingly small sizes; to visualize materials at the nanoscale, the level of molecules and even individual atoms. That's important, since in a sense, that's where the action really happens: Where chemical reactions happen and atomic bonds are broken and remade. Understanding what is happening at the bottom could allow scientists to build up new materials with needed and desired properties.

But visualizing materials at the nanoscale– much less doing anything constructive with them – is tough. So to study those materials and develop their full potential, the Office of Science set up five unique NSRCs as national scientific user facilities. Each of them contains the big high-tech tools needed – the clean rooms and computing capabilities and sophisticated microscopy tools – for doing the science of the extremely small and make these capabilities available to researchers from universities, national laboratories, and industry to accelerate progress in this competitive field.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's (ORNL's) Sergei Kalinin, a researcher at the Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, recently organized a special issue of the journal Advanced Functional Materials focused on the efforts of those centers in scanning probe microcopy research As with the NSRCs themselves, each has a complementary foci and a complete set of imaging and characterization tools.

For instance, the center at ORNL is working on three complementary approaches to better imaging. Researchers there are developing ultra-stable imaging platforms and imaging techniques, advanced data acquisition and image analysis methods, and a variety of sample preparation techniques – including vacuum, in-situ and electrochemically-controlled. These approaches will help them study the physics and electrochemistry of materials for energy storage and conversion, as well as magnetic systems, complex oxides and high temperature superconductors.

In contrast, scanning microscopy efforts at the Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, which is run by Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories, are focused largely on biological and composite materials, especially those inspired by membranes. Membranes are important structures – they can serve as gatekeepers and catalysts and signal relay stations in cells – so understanding them could lead to many insights elsewhere.

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Image of Advanced Functional Materials magazine coverImage courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Cover of the special issue of Advanced Functional Materials featuring DOE's five Nanoscale Science Research Centers.

The Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is using scanning probe microscopies to understand and design new materials and materials systems. Researchers there are trying to better link the fundamental structures of materials with their physical properties and basic functions. They're also working on solid-liquid interfaces, which are particularly tough to study.

Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Nanoscale Materials are developing new highly advanced low temperature scanning probe capabilities (see the back cover of the journal as an example) by combining synchrontron x-ray, lasers, and magnetic fields to achieve a better understanding of the structural and electronic properties of new materials and tiny molecular systems. Researchers there are also teasing out the magnetic, chemical and optical properties of such materials and molecular systems, and connecting those properties with structures down to the atomic scale.

The fifth and last, the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is a major site for cathode lens microscopy. Researchers there are using that technique, and others, to develop a better understanding of how chemical reactions happen, and how materials change when exposed to a variety of conditions, such as high pressures and temperatures. There are a lot of potential applications, including energy storage, energy conversion, and the creation of advanced materials.

That's a lot of potential from the NSRCs, especially since scanning probe microscopies are just one aspect of their efforts. The possibilities are eye-opening, and even eye-popping. That potential is being developed, thanks to the commitment of researchers across the Office of Science, who are constantly struggling to see the small but amazing things right in front of their noses.

The Department's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information please visit

The Nanoscale Science Research Centers are premier national user facilities for interdisciplinary research at the nanoscale supported by the DOE Office of Science. Together the NSRCs comprise a suite of complementary facilities that provide researchers with state-of-the-art capabilities to fabricate, process, characterize and model nanoscale materials, and constitute the largest infrastructure investment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NSRCs are located at DOE's Argonne, Brookhaven, Lawrence Berkeley, Oak Ridge, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. For more information about the DOE NSRCs, please visit

Charles Rousseaux is a Senior Writer in the Office of Science.