All scientists can learn from seeing the world at the nanoscale

21 Apr 2021

Dr Andy Stewart. Image: Sean Curtin/True Media

Bernal Institute’s Dr Andy Stewart wants every scientist to be able to understand materials from the molecules up.

Dr Andy Stewart’s academic career has taken him from the University of Glasgow, where he completed his PhD, to Cornell, Stony Brook, Oxford, Mainz and, now, University of Limerick.

At the Bernal Institute, University of Limerick has gathered together a multidisciplinary team of world-leading materials scientists and engineers, with Stewart among them.

Stewart’s research is pushing the limits of our understanding of the structure of materials down to the nanometre through the development of x-ray and electron diffraction, and scattering techniques. His goal? To automate the use of electron microscopes so that any researcher can benefit from a nanoscale worldview.

‘Everything from climate change to understanding biodegradable materials through to food production will all be impacted by the ability to know why the materials behave the way they do’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I never set out with the goal of becoming a researcher. I just kept wanting to understand new things and followed the opportunities to learn and research new topics that became available. After several years of doing this, I came to the realisation that I had become a researcher.

My PhD was in the theory of how to solve crystal structures and understand how the arrangement of atoms in materials leads to different material properties, allowing us to understand the world around us. People think crystals are boring, but you can read this right now because of a protein crystal that makes up the lens in your eyes.

I went to work at a synchrotron, which is like a power station of x-ray production compared to the battery-like x-ray production in a dentist office. These are amazing places where you have so many new experimental techniques and ideas and teams of people pushing the limits of what is possible. From there, I had an opportunity to work on a brand new technique where we could image an entire cell without the need to slice it into pieces to understand it.

I took these ideas and changed the type of radiation I was using from x-rays to electrons, which opened up new possibilities and opportunities.

Every day is a unique opportunity to understand what makes the world tick at a molecular level.

What research are you currently working on?

We are applying machine learning and artificial intelligence to control electron microscopes. These are some of the most essential instruments for understanding the world at the atomic and nanoscales. But they have a significant problem: their experiments require years of training to operate at the highest level. The instruments require constant supervision and attention to detail. We are developing algorithms to do the tedious work for us and allow the scientist to focus on getting the most information out of the data these incredible machines acquire.

We investigate a wide range of materials but, at the nanoscale, almost everything is a crystal. A new generation of sample environments has been developed to observe the structural dynamics of these materials. This is particularly exciting, opening up a new area of seeing what happens in everything from how the structure of food affects the taste, smell and feel, to how rust forms – all at the atomic and nanoscales.

Most importantly, we can begin to understand how materials grow when they are being synthesised and processed in factories.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) tends to be a specialist niche area where only a small group of highly trained people can obtain the best data or even know which of the many experimental set-ups of TEM will answer your question. We are hoping to make this much more accessible and achievable for many more researchers with a quicker turnover of experimental results.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Potentially everywhere there is a material, we have an application for automated electron microscopy. Understanding materials at the nanoscale is becoming one of the most critical areas of science and technology. And enabling research groups the world over to obtain results in the fastest, most efficient and reproducible way possible is the cornerstone of how we will develop the next generation of materials to solve world problems.

Everything from climate change to understanding biodegradable materials through to food production will all be impacted by the ability to know why the materials behave the way they do, from the molecules upward.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher?

One of the biggest challenges is with the openness of the control software. Many companies consider it a competitive advantage, so don’t make it easy for us to access or even block that possibility, so we have to become very creative to solve these problems.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

I’ve been told by some senior people in the field what I’m trying to do – to control a TEM in an automated fashion – is not possible. When we show them the steps we have made, and the models developed to make it a reality, we have one of two reactions: disbelief or ‘When can I have a copy of this software?’ We will overcome this by making our software freely available to academic researchers when publishing our journal articles.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I would like to see statistically meaningful observations performed by TEMs. Today, because the technique is slow and expensive, only a handful of images are taken as a representative sample of material. I would like to see this change where thousands of images are taken. Details can be obtained concerning the distribution of differences in size, shape and composition of the material on timescales that allow researchers to make better predictions and optimisations about the production of their materials.

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