World-first analytical Transmission Electron Microscope being developed by Manchester materials scientists

Manchester scientists are developing a world-first Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) that integrates cutting-edge imaging and spectroscopy with artificial intelligence and automated workflows (AutomaTEM).

While existing TEMs can image atomic scale structure and chemistry, the time-consuming nature of the technique means the typical regions of interest (ROI) – areas of the sample selected for further analysis – are very limited. The AutomaTEM will resolve this, improving the ability to find and analyse, reducing time incurred while increasing the ROI. As a result, it will accelerate innovation in materials applications for quantum computing, low power electronics, and new catalysts to support the energy transition, all which are currently held back by the limitations of current technology.

The AutomaTEM development is funded through a £9.5 million project supported by The University of Manchester, The Henry Royce Institute, bp and EPSRC, in collaboration with manufacturer Thermo Fisher Scientific. The Manchester team, led by Professor Sarah Haigh, will merge TEM’s existing atomic scale elemental and chemical mapping capabilities together with emerging developments in automation and data analysis to create the AutomaTEM; an instrument that can acquire huge data sets of local chemical information in days rather than years.

Prof Sarah Haigh, Professor of Materials Characterisation at The University of Manchester and Director of the Electron Microscopy Centre (EMC), said: “Understanding atomic detail at the micrometer or millimeter scale is crucial for developing materials for various applications, from catalysis and quantum technologies to nuclear energy and pharmaceuticals.

“This system is not simply another TEM instrument. It will provide new opportunities for atomic scale investigation of materials with less human intervention. For the first time we will be able to enable atomic resolution analysis of hundreds of regions of interest in a matter of hours, providing unprecedented insights into sparse defects and heterogeneous materials.”

Designed with artificial intelligence and automated workflows at its core, the AutomaTEM boasts several cutting-edge features, including:

  • Computer control to automatically adjust the sample stage and beam to address specific regions of interest, enabling detailed high-resolution imaging and diffraction-based analysis without continuous operator interaction.
  • Machine learning integration to segment lower resolution data and build functional relationships between experimental results, enhancing the identification of novel features.
  • A world-leading Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS) system with exceptional collection efficiency, providing precise compositional analysis.
  • A new high-performance electron energy loss spectrometer (EELS) design for chemical analysis of diverse species in complex systems.

Custom built, it is being developed in collaboration with Thermo Fisher Scientific and will arrive in summer 2025. The global laboratory equipment manufacturer has provided Professor Haigh’s team access to the necessary API control, and will supply an energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) system with a world-leading collection efficiency of 4.5 srad.

The AutomaTEM will be housed in The University of Manchester’s state-of-the-art Electron Microscopy Centre (EMC), one of the largest in the UK. The EMC already has 6 transmission electron microscopes (TEMs), 13 scanning electron microscopes (SEMs), and 6 focussed ion beam (FIB) instruments. It supports more than 500 internal users, from 12 different UoM Departments, and welcomes users from institutes across the world, including Cardiff, Durham, Queen Mary and Manchester Metropolitan universities, University of Cape Town (SA), Ceres Power, Nexperia, Nanoco, bp, Johnson Matthey, Oxford Instruments, and UKAEA.

AutomaTEM will be available to external users for free proof of principle academic projects for up to 30 per cent of its total use during the first three years to help foster collaboration and advance research capabilities.

Dr Alexander Eggeman, Royal Society University Research Fellow at The University of Manchester, who is leading co-investigator on the project, said: “The faster, more accurate analysis capabilities of AutomaTEM represent a significant leap forward in materials science research.

“With the potential to impact various industries, including aerospace, automotive, and semiconductor, the AutomaTEM aims to support the UK’s position at the forefront of materials science innovation.

Today’s announcement consolidates The University of Manchester’s reputation at the forefront of advanced materials research. Home to highest concentration of materials scientists in UK academia, it hosts several national centres for Advanced Materials research including the Henry Royce Institute – the UK national institute for Advanced Materials Research; the bp-ICAM, a global partnership to enable the effective application of advanced materials for the transition to net zero; the National Centre for X-ray Computational Tomography; and the National Graphene Institute, the world-leading interdisciplinary centre for graphene and 2D materials research.

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