Powerful new microscope will enable physicists to advance the science of the very fast and very small

Investment in cutting-edge research tools will put the U of A at the forefront of understanding how materials work at the atomic scale, with applications in telecommunications, solar cells and superconductors.

Michael Brown - 03 March 2021

One of the first questions Frank Hegmann always asked students in a second-year physics class is, are you able to see atoms?

Many of the students aren’t sure what the answer is, but developments in nanoscale microscopy over the past several decades have indeed made it possible.

“The scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) won the Nobel Prize in Physics back in 1986, so it wasn't that long ago that our ability to see atoms was made possible,” said Hegmann, a physicist in the Faculty of Science.

Now, thanks to a $3.8-million investment from the federal government through the Canada Foundation for Innovation, University of Alberta researchers, with partners at the University of Manitoba, will purchase $9.7 million worth of equipment that will not only allow them to see atoms, but also keep up with the ultrafast processes that occur in materials at the atomic level—and even control them.

“Just like how new telescopes allow scientists to explore further into space, this new instrument will allow us to explore these very fast processes that happen all the time, but on nanometre-length scale dimensions, and no one else has that capability,” said Hegmann, professor in the Department of Physics.

“The tools that people are trying to develop are what drive the science. You can't do the science without research tools.”

The big piece of equipment to be purchased is an enhanced STM that will allow multiple points on a sample to be studied the same time, providing new insight into how materials work at the atomic scale.

An STM uses an extremely sharp metal tip and a process called “quantum tunnelling” to scan a surface, allowing researchers to see single atoms. However, because the STM is a relatively slow instrument, to observe ultrafast phenomena in materials—things that happen in a trillionth of a second down to the atomic scale—Hegmann’s lab invented a technique in which ultrafast laser sources are coupled with the microscope to bring the small and the fast into plain sight.

“No one in the world had the capability to do this before we actually came up with this technique in 2013 thanks to another CFI (grant),” said Hegmann.

Now the practice is the standard for viewing ultrafast processes at the nanoscale, and has been adopted by many other labs worldwide. A few years ago, a group in Germany, led by a former graduate student of Hegmann’s, became the first to take what was essentially a movie of a single molecule vibrating in time.

Hegmann added that the materials he wants to study have direct applications in everything from telecommunications to superconducting devices that are used for highly sensitive light detection, to new solar cell materials. The new equipment will provide a better understanding of how we can optimize applications of new materials based on what we see at the nanoscale and ultrafast time scales.

“There are a lot of ideas and theories out there about how electrons in charge carriers move inside solar cell materials, but very little work is being done to directly image that. We’ll be able to see it directly.”

Even photo-catalysis, the heavily studied and potentially transformative area of converting CO2 from the atmosphere to usable products and fuel, could be revolutionized as this equipment gives U of A scientists a never-before-seen look at what exactly is happening.

“The better we understand those materials, the better we can optimize those, and even discover new applications with these materials,” he said. “This will even allow us to take an atom and move it to another location to create something new.”

All told, five U of A-led projects received $24.1 million in CFI funding, of which $19.3 million is coming to the U of A. The balance will go to project partner institutions across Canada. An additional eight projects led out of partner institutions secured $8.2 million in CFI funding for the U of A. Proposals for matching provincial funding for these projects are with the provinces pending results.

CFI funding for physics projects led by U of A

Frank Hegmann, Jacob Burgess (University of Manitoba)
Ultrafast Nanoscale Quantum Dynamics (UltraNanoQD) Innovation
$3.9 million from CFI with $3.7 million coming to the U of A and $234,000 to U of M for project worth $9.7 million

Ian Mann
RADiation Impacts on Climate and Atmospheric Loss Satellite (RADICALS) Mission
$8.1 million in CFI funding, with $6.1 million coming to the U of A and $2 million to the University of Calgary for project worth $20.3 million

David Westaway, Michael Woodside
Protein Misfolding Scientific Exploration (ProMiSE) Team: Infrastructure Support for Remediation of Protein Misfolding
$3.9 million in CFI funding for project worth $9.6 million

CFI funding for physics projects where U of A is partner institution

Michel Fich (Waterloo), U of A principal investigator: Erik Roslolowsky
CCAT-prime: A Submillimetre Wavelength Survey Telescope in Chile
$4.9 million in CFI funding of which $750,000 is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $28.8 million.

Mark Boulay (Carleton), U of A principal investigator: Aksel Hallin
Development of Next Generation Liquid Argon Dark Matter Detector and of an Underground Argon Storage Facility at SNOLAB
$6.9 million in CFI funding of which $3 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $22.6 million.

Paul Barclay (University of Calgary), U of A principal investigator: John Davis
A Quantum Diamond and Hybrid Photonics (QDHyP) Foundry
$5.2 million in CFI funding of which $2 million is coming to the U of A. The total cost of the project is $13.1 million. 

Great ideas change the world, but ideas need a push forward. At the University of Alberta, we know that push has never been more important as we do our part to rebuild Alberta and keep doors of opportunity open to all. We're making research discoveries. We’re cultivating entrepreneurs. And we’re giving our students the knowledge and skills they need to turn today's ideas into tomorrow's innovations. Read more stories about U of A innovators.