The ultimate zoom: £2.5 million for imaging facility to see close to atomic level

Please note, this page has been archived and is no longer being updated.

A Swansea research team has won a £2.5 million award for equipment allowing experts to examine materials right down almost to the atomic level. The new equipment would have lots of potential applications, for example improving detection of metal fatigue in aircraft materials or imaging complex architectures in the natural world.

The award, given to materials scientists Dr Richard Johnston and Dr Cameron Pleydell-Pearce in the University’s College of Engineering, is from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).  It will fund a micro-level CT scanner, which allows researchers to analyse objects at very small scales, and a transmission electron microscope, which means they can study tiny samples of materials at even higher magnification, almost at the level of atoms.
The new equipment, added to other state-of-the-art imaging equipment already in the College of Engineering, means that Swansea will be able to offer an integrated imaging facility, where researchers can examine objects at all scales.  Crucially, they will also be able to combine the data they get from looking at the same object using different techniques and equipment, building up a much fuller picture of how materials behave.

600 x 358

Picture:  three images of the microstructure of an alloy used in aircraft, acquired using three different techniques. The etched microstructure (right) is the ‘conventional’ method of viewing the material structure.  But you would not see the underlying anomalies in the crystal structure without using the other two techniques. This has implications for approaches to the characterisation of these materials in industry.  

The new facility would have a broad range of applications, from materials science to bioengineering, and from medicine to archaeology.  The Swansea team have already used their existing scanning and imaging equipment to reveal the contents of ancient Egyptian mummified animals and the composition of space debris.

The award of £2.5 million from the EPSRC follows other funding from the Welsh Government SER Cymru programme, the Welsh European Funding Office, and Swansea University.

Dr Richard Johnston, senior lecturer in materials at Swansea University’s College of Engineering, said:

"We’re extremely happy to receive this highly competitive EPSRC funding. The new X-ray and electron microscopes will enable us to image complex micro and nano structures of advanced materials with exceptionally high resolution, and in 3 and 4 dimensions.

This will advance our imaging research portfolio in many exciting areas, including biomaterials, aerospace, metallurgy, medicine, manufacturing, climate science, and archaeology, among many others.

The new facility will be the only one in Wales to offer an integrated imaging service, and will be open to industry and academic partners across the region." 

Dr Cameron Pleydell-Pearce, TATA steel lecturer in materials at Swansea University, underlined that local links and partnerships are at the heart of this work:

“The proposal involved 14 industrial partners, 4 academic institutions and four separate public funded bodies.  This is a fantastic example of the momentum that can be generated within the Welsh and UK academic / industrial community if academia and industry pull together.   

The significant critical mass that we have in the region will help us to build on this network to tackle a wide range of academic and industrial challenges – there are many opportunities!”

600 x 292

Picture: Bird skull scanned using X-ray microtomography, which reveals the complex internal architecture of bird bone. This is both strong and lightweight, and can inspire engineering design in structural components in aerospace.

The new equipment will be based in the Engineering Manufacturing Centre (EMC), which, along with the Innovation Hub, have been part funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Welsh Government.  The EMC is on the University’s new science and innovation Bay campus, which opens in September 2015.

Current confirmed collaborators include: Rolls-Royce, Carl Zeiss, NSG (Nippon Sheet Glass), BASF, TATA Steel, Cogent Power, R-Tech Services, Weartech, Bangor University, University of South Wales, Science and Technology Facilities Council, Cardiff University, The European Space Agency, Imperial College London, Sandvik-Osprey, The Welding Institute, Vale-Inco and HPC Wales.

Find out more about materials engineering at Swansea


EPSRC logo200 x 150