The performance of materials in extreme environments

Key Points

  • Understanding how materials will perform in extreme environments is crucial to the development of new energy technologies, Australia’s defence capabilities and space exploration
  • ANSTO are leaders in the characterisation of materials from the atomistic to macroscopic scales. This is needed to fully understand performance and service life in extreme environments
  • ANSTO has world-leading infrastructure and materials research expertise to characterise materials for extreme environments

ANSTO researchers investigate how materials behave in extreme environments, providing information that is vital to support the development of our industries.

Extreme environments include situations where materials are exposed to a combination of different conditions, including high temperature, radiation, corrosion and mechanical load.

Read more on the ANSTO website

image: A/Prof Ondrej Muransky describes the capabilities at ANSTO to research materials that operate in extreme environments, such as nuclear reactors

Transition-metal dichalcogenide NiTe2: an ambient-stable material for catalysis and nanoelectronics

Recently, transition-metal dichalcogenides hosting topological states have attracted considerable attention for their potential implications for catalysis and nanoelectronics. The investigation of their chemical reactivity and ambient stability of these materials is crucial in order to assess the suitability of technology transfer. With this aim, an international team of researchers from Italy, Russia, China, USA, India, and Taiwan has studied physicochemical properties of NiTe2 by means of several experimental techniques and density functional theory. Surface chemical reactivity and ambient stability were followed by x-ray photoemission spectroscopy (XPS) and x-ray absorption spectroscopy (XAS) experiments at the BACH beamline, while the electronic band structure was probed by spin- and angle-resolved photoelectron spectroscopy (spin-ARPES) at the APE-LE beamline

Read more on the Elettra website

Image: a) Ni-3p core-level spectra collected from as-cleaved NiTe2 (black curves) and from the same surface exposed to 2·10L of CO (red curves), H2O (green curves) and O2 (blue curves).  Credit: Adapted from “S. Nappini et al., Adv. Funct. Mater. 30, 2000915 (2020); DOI: 10.1002/adfm.202000915” with permission from Wiley (Copyright 2020) with license 4873681106527

Lab Resolves Origin of Perovskite Instability

The following news release was originally issued by Princeton University. The story describes how researchers investigated the inorganic perovskite, cesium lead iodide, that has attracted wide attention for its potential in creating highly efficient solar cells. The researchers used x-ray diffraction performed at Princeton University and x-ray pair distribution function measurements performed at the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory, to find the source of thermodynamic instability in the perovskite. For more information about Brookhaven’s role in this research, please reach out to Cara Laasch,  

Researchers in the Cava Group at the Princeton University Department of Chemistry have demystified the reasons for instability in an inorganic perovskite that has attracted wide attention for its potential in creating highly efficient solar cells.

Using single crystal X-ray diffraction performed at Princeton University and X-ray pair distribution function measurements performed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, Princeton Department of Chemistry researchers detected that the source of thermodynamic instability in the halide perovskite cesium lead iodide (CsPbI3) is the inorganic cesium atom and its “rattling” behavior within the crystal structure.

Read more on NSLS II website

Image: Milinda Abeykoon, one of the lead beamline scientists at Brookhaven Lab, in preparation of the challenging experiments with Robert Cava’s team.

A scalable platform for two-dimensional metals


Using a new method for stabilizing a two-dimensional (2D) metal on a large-area platform, researchers probed the origins of the material’s superconductivity at the Advanced Light Source (ALS).


The work represents a notable milestone in advancing 2D materials toward broad applications in topological computing, advanced optics, and molecular sensing.

Expanding the scientific palette

If you confine everyday metals to layers only a few atoms thick, they acquire new properties that are different from those exhibited by their more common bulk forms. The ability to synthesize such two-dimensional (2D) metals means that the range of materials available for novel uses can be expanded to different areas of the periodic table—providing a much richer “scientific palette” of properties for applications in topological computing, advanced optics, and molecular sensing.

Read more on the ALS website

Image: A confined layer of metal atoms (silver spheres) on a silicon carbide (SiC) substrate is capped by a layer of graphene, allowing for new forms of low-dimensional metals with unique properties. Gold spheres represent Cooper pairs, responsible for conventional superconductivity. 

Credit: Yihuang Xiong/Penn State

In search of the lighting material of the future

At the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI, researchers have gained insights into a promising material for organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). The substance enables high light yields and would be inexpensive to produce on a large scale – that means it is practically made for use in large-area room lighting. Researchers have been searching for such materials for a long time. The newly generated understanding will facilitate the rapid and cost-efficient development of new lighting appliances in the future. The study appears today in the journal Nature Communications.

The compound is a yellowish solid. If you dissolve it in a liquid or place a thin layer of it on an electrode and then apply an electric current, it gives off an intense green glow. The reason: The molecules absorb the energy supplied to them and gradually emit it again in the form of light. This process is called electroluminescence. Light-emitting diodes are based on this principle.

Read more on the Swiss FEL and Swiss Light Source website

Image: Grigory Smolentsev in front of SwissFEL

Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic

Seeing “under the hood” in batteries

From next-gen smartphones to longer-range electric cars and an improved power grid, better batteries are driving tech innovation. And to push batteries beyond their present-day performance, researchers want to see “under the hood” to learn how the individual ingredients of battery materials behave beneath the surface.

This could ultimately lead to battery improvements such as increased capacity and voltage.

But many of the techniques scientists use can only scratch the surface of what’s at work inside batteries, and a high-sensitivity X-ray technique at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is attracting a growing group of scientists because it provides a deeper, more precise dive into battery chemistry.

>Read more on the Advaced Light Source at LBNL website

Image: The high-efficiency RIXS system at the Advanced Light Source’s Beamline 8.0.1
Credit: Marilyn Sargent/Berkeley Lab

Preparation and characterization of mesoscale single crystals

What did the Scientists Discover?
Single crystals are materials with periodic structure that extends across macroscopic distances as a coherent lattice free of grain boundaries. By isolating and studying their properties, bulk single crystals have revolutionized our fundamental understanding of materials from semiconductors to biomacromolecules, fueling innovations from microelectronic devices to pharmaceutical compounds. In contrast, our understanding of many mesostructured materials is still in its infancy in part due to the lack of available single crystals. Block copolymer self-assembly of mesostructured systems presented here is a promising method to prepare periodic 10–100 nm structures with coherent orientation over macroscopic lengths enabling their study.

Why is this important?
The method presented here can prepare macroscopic bulk single crystals with other block copolymer systems, suggesting that the method is broadly applicable to block copolymer materials assembled by solvent evaporation. It is expected that such bulk single crystals will enable fundamental understanding and control of emergent mesostructure-based properties in block-copolymer-directed metal, semiconductor, and superconductor materials.

>Read more on the CHESS website

Image: (extract, full image see here) Representative SAXS patterns with log scale colors from locations as indicated in (c), exhibiting polycrystalline (e), multi-(three) crystalline (f), and single crystal (g) behavior. Diagonal bars across bottom are shadows from photodiode wire.

Plastic from Wood

X-ray analysis points the way to lignin-based components made to measure

The biopolymer lignin is a by-product of papermaking and a promising raw material for manufacturing sustainable plastic materials. However, the quality of this naturally occurring product is not as uniform as that of petroleum-based plastics. An X-ray analysis carried out at DESY reveals for the first time how the internal molecular structure of different lignin products is related to the macroscopic properties of the respective materials. The study, which has been published in the journal Applied Polymer Materials, provides an approach for a systematic understanding of lignin as a raw material to allow for production of lignin-based bioplastics with different properties, depending on the specific application.

Read more on the PETRA III at DESY website (opens in a new tab)”>>Read more on the PETRA III at DESY website

Image: Lignin is a promising raw material (left) for thermoplast (right) production.
Credit: KTH Stockholm, Marcus Jawerth

Water improves material’s ability to capture CO2

With the help of the Advanced Light Source (ALS), researchers from UC Berkeley and ExxonMobil fine-tuned a material to capture CO2 in the presence of water.

About 65% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions comes from the combustion of fossil fuels in power plants. So far, efforts to capture CO2 from power-plant flue gases and sequester it underground have mainly focused on coal-fired power plants. However, in the United States, natural gas has surpassed coal in the amount CO2 released, despite the fact that natural gas emits approximately half as much CO2 per unit of electricity. Therefore, new materials are urgently needed to address this situation.

Not all combustion is alike

Compared to coal-fired power plants, natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) plants produce flue gases with low CO2 concentrations. This reduces the carbon footprint, but increases the technical difficulty of CO2 capture. Also, materials capable of adsorbing such low concentrations of CO2 often require high temperatures to release it for sequestration, an important part of the cycle that offsets initial low-carbon benefits. NGCC emissions also have a higher concentration of O2, which has a corrosive effect on adsorbent materials, and both NGCC and coal flue streams are saturated in water, which can both degrade materials and reduce efficiency. Thus, an effective NGCC CO2-capture material must selectively bind low-concentration CO2 under humid conditions while being thermally and oxidatively stable.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source website

Image: Single-crystal x-ray diffraction enables the precise determination of the positions of the atoms in metal–organic frameworks (MOFs), highly porous materials capable of soaking up vast quantities of a specific gas molecule, such as CO2. This structure represents 2-ampd–Zn2(dobpdc), a MOF with the same structure as 2-ampd–Mg2(dobpdc), the subject of this study. Light blue, blue, red, gray, and white spheres represent Zn, N, O, C, and H atoms, respectively.

A fast and precise look into fibre-reinforced composites

Researchers at the Paul Scherrer Institute PSI have improved a method for small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS) to such an extent that it can now be used in the development or quality control of novel fibre-reinforced composites.

This means that in the future, such materials can be investigated not only with X-rays from especially powerful sources such as the Swiss Light Source SLS, but also with those from conventional X-ray tubes. The researchers have published their results in the journal Nature Communications.
Novel fibre-reinforced composites are becoming increasingly important as stable and lightweight materials. One example of this type of composite is carbon fibre reinforced polymers (CFRP), which are used in aircraft construction or in the construction of Formula 1 racing cars and sports bicycles. The properties of these materials depend to a large extent on how the tiny fibres are aligned and how they are arranged and embedded in the surrounding material, influencing the mechanical, optical, or electromagnetic behaviour of the composites.

To investigate the fibre’s orientation in such composites, researchers must look inside them. One could use small angle X-ray scattering (SAXS), exploiting the fact that X-rays are scattered when they penetrate matter. The resulting scattering pattern can then be used to obtain information about the interior of a sample and potentially the orientation of the fibres. However, the common SAXS methods have the disadvantage of being quite slow: It can take up to several hours to scan centimetre-sized specimens with the required resolution.

>Read more on the Swiss Light Source (PSI) website

Image: Matias Kagias (left) and Marco Stampanoni in front of the apparatus with which they examined the composites using the newly developed X-ray method. Both hold one of the workpieces that have been X-rayed.
Credit: Paul Scherrer Institute/Mahir Dzambegovic

Dynamic pattern of skyrmions observed

Tiny magnetic vortices known as skyrmions form in certain magnetic materials, such as Cu2OSeO3.

These skyrmions can be controlled by low-level electrical currents – which could facilitate more energy-efficient data processing. Now a team has succeeded in developing a new technique at the VEKMAG station of BESSY II for precisely measuring these vortices and observing their three different predicted characteristic oscillation modes (Eigen modes).

Cu2OSeO3 is a material with unusual magnetic properties. Magnetic spin vortices known as skyrmions are formed within a certain temperature range when in the presence of a small external magnetic field. Currently, moderately low temperatures of around 60 Kelvin (-213 degrees Celsius) are required to stabilise their phase, but it appears possible to shift this temperature range to room temperature. The exciting thing about skyrmions is that they can be set in motion and controlled very easily, thus offering new opportunities to reduce the energy required for data processing.

>Read more on the BESSY II at HZB website

Image: The illustration demonstrates skyrmions in one of their Eigen modes (clockwise).
Credit: Yotta Kippe/HZB

New research possibilities at NanoMAX

X-rays can penetrate materials and are therefore useful for studying chemical processes as they occur inside reactors, cells, and batteries. A common ingredient in such chemical systems is metal nanoparticles, which are often used as catalysts for important reactions. As the NanoMAX beamline provides a very small X-ray focal spot, single nanoparticles can in principle be studied as they perform their catalytic functions.

In this paper, we show that gold nanoparticles sitting inside an electrochemical cell can be imaged at NanoMAX. These preliminary results come from nanoparticles around 60 nm (60 millionths of a millimetre) in size, and we show that even smaller particles could be studied. If successful, future experiments will allow “filming” nanoparticles as they catalyze reactions in real-time, and give new understanding of how catalysis works. That could in turn help design new materials for energy conversion, chemical production, and water purification.

>Read more on the MAX IV Laboratory
Image (extract, full image here): Coherent Bragg imaging of 60 nm Au nanoparticles under electrochemical control at the NanoMAX beamline

Enhancing Materials for Hi-Res Patterning to Advance Microelectronics

Scientists at Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials created “hybrid” organic-inorganic materials for transferring ultrasmall, high-aspect-ratio features into silicon for next-generation electronic devices.

To increase the processing speed and reduce the power consumption of electronic devices, the microelectronics industry continues to push for smaller and smaller feature sizes. Transistors in today’s cell phones are typically 10 nanometers (nm) across—equivalent to about 50 silicon atoms wide—or smaller. Scaling transistors down below these dimensions with higher accuracy requires advanced materials for lithography—the primary technique for printing electrical circuit elements on silicon wafers to manufacture electronic chips. One challenge is developing robust “resists,” or materials that are used as templates for transferring circuit patterns into device-useful substrates such as silicon.

>Read more on the NSLS-II at Brookhaven Lab website

Image: (Left to right) Ashwanth Subramanian, Ming Lu, Kim Kisslinger, Chang-Yong Nam, and Nikhil Tiwale in the Electron Microscopy Facility at Brookhaven Lab’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials. The scientists used scanning electron microscopes to image high-resolution, high-aspect-ratio silicon nanostructures they etched using a “hybrid” organic-inorganic resist.

The role of ‘charge stripes’ in superconducting materials

The studies could lead to a new understanding of how high-temperature superconductors operate.

High-temperature superconductors, which carry electricity with zero resistance at much higher temperatures than conventional superconducting materials, have generated a lot of excitement since their discovery more than 30 years ago because of their potential for revolutionizing technologies such as maglev trains and long-distance power lines. But scientists still don’t understand how they work.
One piece of the puzzle is the fact that charge density waves – static stripes of higher and lower electron density running through a material – have been found in one of the major families of high-temperature superconductors, the copper-based cuprates. But do these charge stripes enhance superconductivity, suppress it or play some other role?
In independent studies, two research teams report important advances in understanding how charge stripes might interact with superconductivity. Both studies were carried out with X-rays at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

>Read more on the LCLS at SLAC website

Image: This cutaway view shows stripes of higher and lower electron density – “charge stripes” – within a copper-based superconducting material. Experiments with SLAC’s X-ray laser directly observed how those stripes fluctuate when hit with a pulse of light, a step toward understanding how they interact with high-temperature superconductivity.
Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

For superconductors, discovery comes from disorder

Discovered more than 100 years ago, superconductivity continues to captivate scientists who seek to develop components for highly efficient energy transmission, ultrafast electronics or quantum bits for next-generation computation.  However, determining what causes substances to become — or stop being — superconductors remains a central question in finding new candidates for this special class of materials.

In potential superconductors, there may be several ways electrons can arrange themselves. Some of these reinforce the superconducting effect, while others inhibit it. In a new study, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have explained the ways in which two such arrangements compete with each other and ultimately affect the temperature at which a material becomes superconducting.

>Read more on the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab website

Image: This image shows the transition between Cooper pair density (indicated by blue dots) and charge density waves. Argonne scientists found that by introducing defects, they could disrupt charge density waves and increase superconductivity.
Ellen Weiss / Argonne National Laboratory

Tuning material properties with laser light

The research results suggest the possibility of creating microelectronic devices that use a laser beam to erase and rewrite bits of information in materials engineered for random-access memory and data storage.

Many semiconductor-based devices use electric currents to control and manipulate bits of information encoded into tiny magnetic domains. However, this approach is reaching the physical limits of thermally stable feature sizes, and scientists are actively searching for the next generation of materials and processes that could lead to smaller, faster, more powerful devices.
One possible path forward has been opened up by the emergence of materials that can be engineered, layer by layer, to theoretical specifications. Multiferroics, for example, are designed materials with technologically useful properties that can be controlled by external fields. While many studies have been performed on the effects of electric and magnetic fields on multiferroics, very few studies have explored the use of optical modulation (i.e., laser light) as a way to tune magnetic and electronic ordering in such materials.

>Read more on the Advanced Light Source at LBL website

Images: They are taken at the same illuminated region using PFM, PEEM with linearly polarized x-rays, and PEEM with circularly polarized x-rays. The strong black and white contrast in the linear dichroism image indicates the antiferromagnetic order; the red/blue contrast in the circular dichroism image shows the existence of ferromagnetic moments that lie parallel/antiparallel to the incident x-rays, respectively.