Nanotechnology is calling, microscopes are answering

Nanotechnology is calling, microscopes are answering

As the nano-scale world grows, researchers at Alberta and McMaster universities develop the microscope technology to conquer it
November 1, 2006
As if cell phones weren’t small and sophisticated enough already, Steven Dew, University of Alberta’s associate dean and professor of engineering, is working to replace today’s “bulky” micron-sized transistor chips with nano-sized components—chips too small to see—that could turn cell phones, computers, or medical equipment into the smallest, most advanced, multitasking technology imaginable. As more research occurs, nanotechnology has revealed itself as having almost-infinite possibilities.

But manipulating, studying, and working with components that are too small to see, presents a fundamental challenge. For Dew and others working on nano-scale projects, part of the solution has been to develop more powerful microscopes that can magnify to the atomic scale—up to 30-million times magnification—as well as examine, cut, and manipulate samples. Microscope technology currently being developed at the University of Alberta (U of A) and McMaster University will give scientists the ability to do all that and more.

“Surface science has been around a long time,” says John Preston, director of McMaster’s Brockhouse Institute for Materials Research, a leading nanotechnology research centre in Hamilton, Ontario. Using complex measurements and the best instruments available, researchers still could only make inferences and derive partial understanding because they couldn’t actually see the finer details of what they were working on. “When you can see something, and measure it directly, you really know what’s going on. It allows you to be more creative in your experiments and ultimately the field advances faster.” That’s why Preston believes the Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy (CCEM), home of the National Ultrahigh Resolution Electron Microscopy Facility for Nanoscale Materials Research at Brockhouse, will allow researchers to do just that.

“We wanted something that would change the field of microscopy and materials research,” says Gianluigi Botton, the facility’s lead researcher. “This is it.”

Construction is complete on the building, which will house a transmission electron microscope able to magnify on a high scale and produce an image of world-record resolution. With current technology, electron microscopes produce images distorted by unavoidable, minute aberrations in the lenses. At CCEM, the major distortions are corrected with the use of aberration correctors. With these devices, the facility will be able to achieve resolution smaller than an angstrom in size. What also makes the facility special is the size of the beam used to “look” at the samples. Using a beam smaller than one angstrom, researchers will, for the first time, be able to observe tiny changes in energy levels between bonds, and gain more understanding of chemical bonds and structures, as well as which atoms and molecules are present in smaller particles.

Samples examined at CCEM must be nano-thin. To make them so, scientists turn to facilities like Edmonton’s U of A, where another cluster of high-calibre microscopes is located. There, one can cut samples into slices 10 atoms thick, perfect for viewing under electron microscopes.

The U of A is the new home of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Research Facility (ECERF), a seven-storey research building. Next door is the newly finished home of the National Institute for Nanotechnology (NINT), a joint project between the National Research Council and the U of A. Inside these two buildings are the Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility’s (INRF) two new scanning electron microscopes, one combined with a focused ion beam and the other with a scanning probe microscope. The vision of David Lynch, U of A’s dean of engineering, is that the collaborative microscopes will make it possible for researchers like Dew to make everything from the smallest, sleekest cell phones to super computers that take up minimal space.

Dew also uses the Alberta Centre for Surface Engineering and Science (ACSES), a multi-instrument lab at the university devoted to studying the surface of materials, to examine the components he is trying to build. When combined with the new microscopes at INRF, ACSES will allow him to not only look at the components, but to manipulate them at the same time. The facilities are important, as is the opportunity to bring together the scientific community—biologists, chemists, engineers, and physicists—all under the same roof. Dew’s own research involves assembly using DNA and antibodies, something most engineers know nothing about.

“There are powerful synergies having all these tools together,” Dew says. “Instead of having to travel to a different part of the university or even the world, I can go down the hall to get help solving my problems.”


Nanotechnology is at work everywhere, even in the booming oil sands of northeastern Alberta—one of the largest known oil reserves in the world.

Murray Gray, an oil sands researcher at the University of Alberta, is using the surface analysis capabilities at ACSES and INRF to make the production of crude oil from bitumen, the raw impure hydrocarbon in the oil sands, more productive. Some oil is trapped when solid waste, known as coke, is deposited during the cracking of the bitumen. By examining thin layers of the coke in different operating environments, Gray’s research has the potential to help energy company Syncrude Canada to improve their crude oil production by three to five percent. “It may not sound like much, but when you’re talking about 350,000 barrels a day, it’s significant,” says Gray. “They waste less and make better use of the resource.”

Getting more out of a resource is something McMaster University’s Alex Adronov is also trying to do. He is using the unique properties of carbon nanotubes—impressive conductivity and strength—to improve the ability of solar cells to absorb energy from the sun.

Even the best solar cells can only absorb about 30 percent of the available solar energy. Electrons released by solar energy-absorbing polymers are finicky and often jump back to the polymer instead of transmitting into electricity. Adronov wants to use the conductivity, and the long and skinny structure of carbon nanotubes, to whisk electrons away from their source before they have a chance to jump back.

Adronov will be able to use the CCEM microscope to view the bonds between the solar energy-absorbing polymers and the energy-conducting carbon nanotubes. “I need high-resolution microscopy to be able to investigate the bonding between the nanotubes and the polymers,” he says. “There really isn’t a microscope I can do that with right now. Once CCEM is complete, a new age of microscopy and nanotechnology will be possible, opening up the doors for new ways to make our everyday activities and work more efficient and productive.”


Even the most minor vibration from someone walking in another part of a building or a change in half a degree of temperature, or even nearby electrical currents, can throw off nano-scale microscopy. That’s why millions of dollars must be spent on independent floating floors, climate controls, and electromagnetic insulation. As a result, many institutions, governments, and private companies share facilities—and associated costs—of the likes of the national Integrated Nanosystems Research Facility and Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy.

The National Research Council and other government bodies, as well as researchers at universities throughout Canada, will all have opportunities to use both facilities. Oil sands mining and processing companies, like Syncrude Canada and Imperial Oil, have invested heavily in the facilities at the University of Alberta and private companies also support McMaster’s centre.

And because the McMaster site is coveted by scientists throughout the world, Gianluigi Botton says, instrument time there can be traded for time at other cutting-edge complementary facilities in North America and internationally. “It is an excellent deal for all Canadian researchers,” he says.

Learn More

A major source for innovation in developing technology in the production of oil sands is the Imperial Oil Centre for Oil Sand Innovation at the University of Alberta.