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Volume 23 / No. 1 / 2012
Cornell University
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How To Grow a Super Material or Troubleshoot a Classic One

David A. Muller, Applied and Engineering Physics Muller
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Being able to see each atom of a material has allowed us to troubleshoot, discover, and create materials of all kinds.

The SuperSTEM and Us

Material failures can cause devastating accidents or take down entire systems because a few atoms of the material are in the wrong place. Figuring out what caused a failure or problem and rectifying it is the suitable solution. The answer may also be to create a new, better material. But first, we have to see the atoms that make up a material.

Using our electron microscopes that we perfected here at Cornell, I can see a material’s makeup, atom by atom. I can work out what each atom is and what each atom is doing. Developing techniques for our instruments and using them in materials research has led my lab to substantive discoveries as we create, characterize, and control materials at this very, very small length scale.

To give you an idea of the scale at which we’re working, imagine that a wafer of computer chips is the size of the United States; a single transistor on a single chip is the size of a car parked somewhere in the United States, and that car has a pin in it. We can find that pin somewhere in a car parked somewhere in the United States, and tell you the color of the pin.

This is the scale of magnification we have with our electron microscopes—the Nion SuperSTEM (scanning transmission electron microscope) and the F-20. So the challenge is, if we are looking at trillions and trillions of atoms in a piece of material, where do we start?

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