Super-microscope puts Slovenia on the map in materials development

Ljubljana, 15 December - Goran Dražić is a top-level microscopist and the head of the electronic microscopy group at the National Institute of Chemistry. According to him, microscopy is a mix of science, art and craft; without a keen instinct and a lot of know-how it is impossible to get excellent results. His work is instrumental for researchers, but he still spends a lot of his time apart from them - in silence and in darkness, in a room specifically built for the microscope that he operates.

The development and study of the properties of modern materials involves using very complex and expensive methods for the analysis of chemical properties and crystalline structure. It often turns out that chemical properties and crystalline structure at very low scales, often at the level of the distribution of individual atoms, have a decisive impact on the properties of materials.

One of the instruments making such analysis possible is the atomic resolution scanning transmission electron microscope (AR-STEM) of the kind that Dražić operates. The microscope, the first in Slovenia with atomic resolution, makes it possible to observe the distribution of individual rows of atoms and in some cases even individual atoms.

The Centre of Excellence for Low-Carbon Technologies and the National Institute of Chemistry bought the four million euro microscope in 2013. There were only four such microscopes in Central Europe at the time and only one in the east of Europe, at a private university in Turkey. The acquisition was therefore a huge benefit for Slovenia and the broader region of Central and Eastern Europe.

Post-doctoral researchers and guests from West Europe and other developed countries have also taken a keen interest in the microscope, says Dražić. The state-of-the-art equipment has put Slovenia on the map in the field of materials development and the study of microstructure. "Now that word of this cutting-edge equipment has spread, people are contacting us wanting to come to work here. They even arrange independent financing so they can spend a year or two working on the microscope."

In the last two years over 40 microscope projects have been carried out with collaborators from Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Italy, France, Turkey, Portugal and the US. These involved more than 20 research groups and 25 articles have been published and submitted for publication in journals with a high impact factor. The results of the microscopic studies have also been dealt with in two PhD dissertations and over 15 academic presentations at conferences and congresses.

The work of a microscopist is very specific, according to Dražić. His takes place in a special room in the basement of the Pregl Research Centre at the National Institute of Chemistry, and is often conducted in darkness and in peace, which Dražić says he enjoys immensely. He likens it to a journey: "When you discover something interesting it is like discovering a tomb in Africa. All the hours of waiting finally pay off."

Successful work requires the best materials, state-of-the-art instruments and people who know how to handle them, Dražić is convinced. Since such research equipment is extraordinarily complex, operating it requires very broad knowledge and experience. In under two years 14 operators from eight research groups from five countries have completed training and started using the microscope on a regular basis. At present six Chemistry Institute collaborators are using it.

The atomic resolution scanning microscope may be the most expensive piece of equipment at the Pregl Research Institute, which was built in 2013, but the facility has been kitted out with gear worth about seven million euros total. Its state-of-the-art laboratories boast the latest in research equipment, almost entirely financed with EU funds, and are home to 80 researchers.

The microscope is in use from morning until evening, but in order to use it to the maximum it should be in operation for 20 hours per day, Dražić thinks. The unused time is therefore allotted to other research institutions. For example, earlier this year the Jožef Stefan Institute invested half a million euros to buy a 20% stake in the microscope, which it will be able to use independently a fifth of the time, Dražić explained.

Finally, the microscope is also a key tool for applied projects and direct analysis of materials and products produced by Slovenian industry, notes Dražić. For example, by studying layers of anatase nanoparticles at the atomic level it is possible to determine how to improve the properties of titanium dioxide produced by Cinkarna Celje. Similar discoveries can be made studying metallic materials produced by companies such as Acroni Jesenice and Impol Slovenska Bistrica.

Goran Dražić's diagram of cooperation

Source: Science Atlas