As a passenger on an aeroplane, your life depends not only on the pilot but also on those who designed the plane, chose the materials to make it and tested how these would be affected by high temperatures and the stresses to which they are subjected under flying conditions.
For instance, metal alloys used in a Boeing engine can now be analysed right down to the tiniest atom, measuring 0.1 nanometres — minuscule, if you consider that one nanometre equals one billionth of a metre. And it is this kind of profoundly in-depth research that can now be carried out at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s new R120-million Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy, launched on Tuesday this week.
But the aim of nanotechnology — the science of small things — is not only to reduce the size of devices, but also to take advantage of the fact that, at the nanoscale, the properties of traditional materials may change, giving rise to new capabilities and applications.
The centre’s director, Professor of physics Jan Neethling, said: “With our research and instruments, we will be able to assist with the development of new products. The advanced technology will help South Africa become a manufacturing nation and improve our international competitiveness.”
The R90-million suite of instruments includes the Japanese-made Jeol, a high-resolution transmission electron microscope that can analyse materials right down to atomic level and three additional state-of-the-art electron microscopes, each with different capabilities.
Keeping up with international developments
In electron microscopy South Africa used to be many years behind the rest of the world, but Neethling kept up with international developments since 1988 by visiting centres in Europe that were developing this equipment. Now, however, all the research can be done at the university.
Electron microscopy, developed in the past 80 years, has contributed to modern engineering materials and the microelectronics revolution, which have in turn given us television, cellphones, optical-fibre communication and computers. On the medical side it has enabled biologists to study the structure of cells, bacteria and viruses.
The centre intends its research to contribute to developments in energy, chemical processing, minerals and advanced materials. Specific examples include Sasol’s coal-to-liquid fuel process, materials for next-generation nuclear reactors, maintenance of coal and nuclear power stations, infrared sensors, hard metals, ceramics and diamond products used as cutting and drilling tools, and titanium and aluminium alloys for the aerospace and automotive industries.
Neethling said: “The key objectives of the centre are to conduct the most advanced nanoscale materials research on the African continent and to train highly skilled MSc and PhD graduates. It also aims to transfer expert knowledge to industries and so assist institutions to bridge the gap between research and product commercialisation.”
Nicky Willemse is a freelance writer contracted by Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.