UL Bernal Institute now sporting one of the world’s leading microscopes

21 Jun 2017

Image: freedarst/Shutterstock

A moon, a deity or a microscope? What titan has UL just added to its armoury? The latter, of course.

University of Limerick today (21 June) revealed its latest toy, a €6m microscope billed as one of the most powerful in the world.

The FEI Titan Themis double aberration-corrected transmission electron microscope (TEM) was revealed at UL’s Bernal Institute, a place with a booming reputation.

Atomic capabilities

The microscope will allow researchers to study materials at an atomic level, or on the scale of 10-billionths of a millimetre.

This launch is a milestone for electron microscopy in Ireland, according to UL, as it is the first microscope with full spectroscopic and in situ capabilities for TEM and STEM in the country.

Valued at €6m, a further €3m worth of specialist equipment has been added to the UL machine, making it one of just a handful with these capabilities worldwide.

The add-ons include in situ microscopy, and ultra-fast and sensitive detectors, as well as environmental holders, which allow for the behaviour of materials to be studied in real time across a range of environments.

It should help position Irish materials research at the forefront of the industry, with UL’s own reputation sure to be enhanced, too.

“The holders for the specimens are especially interesting,” said Dr Andrew Stewart of UL’s Department of Physics and the Bernal Institute.

“For the past 70 years, we have been observing materials in a vacuum and not in the conditions these materials are used on a day-to-day basis.

“The holders allow us to introduce specific triggers into samples, allowing us to see how these materials, at an atomic level, interact with the world; for example, how they react when exposed to different gases, liquids, heating, biasing or cryo-cooling.”

The microscope could be used in the drug discovery and design processes in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as in medical device development in the electronics industry, and in materials characterisation in the nuclear and aviation industries.

Its capabilities are so powerful that researchers will have the ability to characterise materials with sub-atomic resolution and capture their behaviour in real environments, something that has not been possible up until now.

Bernal is blossoming

The Bernal Institute was opened late last year, representing an €86m investment in UL for the 20,000 sq m high-quality, multipurpose research space.

Bernal’s chairs in Limerick are in such leading areas of science as microscopy, composites and even crystal engineering.

One of the goals of the whole facility is to drive innovation at UL’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, with outputs such as attractive career paths for research graduates, strong performing citation rates for scholarly publications, and meaningful contributions to the development of industry and prosperity in Ireland and the Shannon region.

A tool as accurate as the FEI Titan Themis, therefore, can only help this along.

Bernal recently had Prof Robert Langer, David H Koch Institute professor at MIT, over for a talk. He is credited with being the most cited engineer in history, the father of delayed drug delivery and one of the most prolific scientists in the world.

Updated, 11.45am, 21 June 2017: This article was updated to include comments from today’s event.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic