Zooming in on the atom, 1,600 times a second: UL unveils €9m microscope

Bernal Institute’s Titan Themis to aid pharmaceutical, electronic and nuclear research

Titan Themis: Prof Des Fitzgerald, president of the University of Limerick, Prof Edmond Magner of the faculty of science and engineering, and Ursel Bangert, Bernal professor of microscopy and imaging, at the new microscope

Titan Themis: Prof Des Fitzgerald, president of the University of Limerick, Prof Edmond Magner of the faculty of science and engineering, and Ursel Bangert, Bernal professor of microscopy and imaging, at the new microscope

 

A total of €9 million has been invested in a superadvanced microscope at the University of Limerick’s Bernal Institute.

The Titan Themis, one of only a handful of such instruments around the world, was unveiled at a ceremony on Wednesday. The university said it will allow researchers to “see individual atoms and identify their chemical nature on the scale of a ten-billionth of a millimetre”, in “real-world conditions”.

It will be of benefit to scientists working on drug discovery and design processes in the pharmaceutical industry, and in the development of medical devices. It will also facilitate advanced research for the electronics, nuclear and aviation industries.

The “double-corrected, monochromated” transmission electron microscope is valued at €6 million. A further €3 million worth of specialist equipment has been added to the machine, including ultrafast detectors, as well as holders, that allow for the behaviour of materials to be studied in real time across a range of environments.

For 70 years scientists have been observing materials in a vacuum, “not in the conditions these materials are used on a day-to-day basis”, Dr Andrew Stewart of the Bernal Institute said. “The holders allow us to introduce specific triggers into samples, allowing us to see how these materials, at an atomic level, interact with the world – for example, how they react when exposed to different gases, liquids, heating, biasing or cryocooling.”

The microscope is also equipped with a detector that allows scientists to capture atoms’ reactions at 1,600 frames a second. “Up until now we have only been able to detect 10 frames per second, so effectively this new camera will allow us to record the processes at a submillisecond timescale and capture that information as it unfolds. It is the difference between seeing time-stamped stills of a process and seeing a movie of what is happening at an atomic level.”

The university’s president, Prof Des Fitzgerald, said the acquisition of the Titan Themis “marks the biggest single investment in a piece of instrumentation by the University of Limerick”. These new facilities would create a generation of postgraduate students with world-class skills in electron microscopy and strengthen UL’s international academic profile by attracting overseas students and programmes, he added.

The equipment is funded by UL in partnership with Science Foundation Ireland, whose director general, Prof Mark Ferguson, said they were delighted to support Irish researchers by providing world-class facilities and equipment. “These investments are vital for attracting investment and talent to Ireland and ensuring we remain at the forefront of scientific research and development.”