LeBeau Wins $2M TEM in NSF MRI Competition

The largest award in NC State history from the NSF Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program has been granted to Professor Jim LeBeau, Associate Director of the AIF and Associate Professor of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE). The instrument, a Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) costing over $2M, will be purchased using funds from NSF (>$1.4M) and >$600k from NC State. The instrument will be located within the AIF and made available to users starting in the summer of 2018.

Professor LeBeau won the award on his first attempt – a success that may surprise many past MRI recipients. Because of the size and significance of this success, we sat down and interviewed Professor LeBeau about the project, excerpts of which are given below.

Co-Principal Investigators of the award include Ashley Brown (Biomedical Engineering), Veronica Augustyn (MSE), Elizabeth Dickey (MSE), and Dean Hesterberg (Soil Science). The title of the award is “Acquisition of a Transmission Electron Microscope for In-situ Studies of Soft and Hard Matter” and the public award abstract can be found here: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=1726294

Q: What is so special about the microscope?

LeBeau: As hard and soft matter research becomes ever more intertwined, new structural characterization capabilities are necessary to understand how these materials interface and integrate. The new TEM is equipped with a complement of in situ sample holders to explore materials as a function of temperature, atmosphere (liquid or gas), and electrical biasing, a high speed camera to capture detailed structural changes during in situ experiments, cryogenic sample preparation and holders to image beam sensitive materials, electron energy loss spectroscopy (EELS) and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) to correlate nanoscale structure and chemistry, and tilt-tomography to measure three dimensional (3D) structural details.

Q: What “new science” can the instrument support?

LeBeau: At NC State, major investments have recently been made in strategic research areas including carbon-based materials, energy materials, environmental science, and data sciences. Key to developing and understanding materials for energy storage and conversion, biological compatibility, geochemical interactions, and exotic properties in oxide materials are the direct, nanoscale observations provided by transmission electron microscopy (TEM).  While traditional TEM methods have relied on investigating the material before and after application of stimuli, the new microscope will enable the study of dynamic behavior as well as at very low temperatures where samples are more stable under the electron beam and where exotic properties, such as superconductivity, can be directly studied. In addition to adding these new enabling technologies, the instrument will be fully equipped to handle all traditional imaging modes all within a single package.

Q: What do you think are a couple important things that led to the success of the proposal?

LeBeau: From a technical perspective, interdisciplinary research merging soft and hard matter is a timely topic. In the proposal, we provided several examples where the instrument could contribute to existing research that could otherwise not be conducted in the region; examples include metal organic frameworks, carbon electronics, and battery materials. From management and integration perspectives, locating the instrument in a facility like the AIF was a strength of the proposal because of the growth and success of the facility in recent years. The Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network (RTNN) added even more opportunities to serve the region and the nation in research, education, and outreach activities.