How Are Atomic Scale Research and Electron Microscopy Studies Conducted?

How Atomic Scale Research and Electron Microscopy Studies Are Done
How Atomic Research and Electron Microscopy Studies Are Done - James LeBeau, associate professor at MIT, is developing new methods for collecting and processing electron microscopy data to better understand material properties in areas such as electronics, photonics, quantum mechanics, and energy storage. Credits: Picture by Adam Glanzman

James LeBeau explores the nanoscale world inside materials to understand the properties of materials using new electron microscopy methods.

Associate Professor James LeBeau uses an analogy to explain why he likes the electron microscope: He likens it to the opposite of astronomy, as it uses electron beams to reveal objects thousands of times smaller than conventional microscopes.

According to LeBeau, discovering something that no human has ever seen before is mind-blowing. It's nice to have atoms arranged in materials, especially near defects that give rise to various material behaviors.

LeBeau used this desire to create new methods for extracting and analyzing information from the electron microscope that could be used to better understand materials. He has used these methods to describe the behavior of materials in a variety of industries, including electronics, optics, energy storage, quantum computing, and more.

Beyond describing material properties, electron microscopy also has an important computational component, as it is used to examine and draw new inferences from data that may have been overlooked before. He also adds that with the establishment of the computer faculty, it is an exciting time to be at MIT.

LeBeau developed a passion for science at a young age and became interested in engineering while helping his father build and repair household items.

According to LeBeau, science, beyond superstition, can explain the world around us. Making sense of the world was for me the purpose of science.

LeBeau was first introduced to materials science while attending technical high school in Indiana. But while he was a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, he had several defining moments that shaped the rest of his life.

In his first year he was involved in a project that uses data science to predict material properties.

After that, she says, “I was fascinated and knew I wanted to go the academic route.” “I really liked the idea of ​​being able to research topics and have academic independence.”

LeBeau joined an undergraduate summer research program a few years later, in 2005, at what is now the Materials Research Laboratory at MIT. His interest in applying materials science for sustainability was sparked by this experience, where he integrated biopolymers into a casting process. The enthusiasm of the researchers at MIT impressed him deeply.

LeBeau first experienced electron microscopy when he was a senior and explains:

“This excitement caught my attention at a very early age. We were studying these materials in the lab in the dead of night. “I loved what I did, so it didn't matter how hard I worked; this laid the groundwork for the rest of my career.”

He was a member of a team that showed the theory of scanning transmission electron microscopy and experiment to be in perfect harmony, allowing to weigh attograms (millionths of a trillionth of a gram) of material directly from electron microscope images without the use of external microscope calibration standards. This work was done while LeBeau was pursuing his doctorate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

LeBeau also loves cycling in the mountains close to the UC Barbara campus. He pursues this hobby by cycling thousands of kilometers a year, including going to MIT almost every day.

LeBeau joined the faculty at North Carolina State University after earning her PhD, where she spent eight years before a similar job opened at MIT in 2019.

Since moving to MIT, LeBeau has assisted the Institute in acquiring cutting-edge electron microscopy tools that researchers across campus use at MIT.nano and elsewhere.

Users of the Electron Microscope

“The equipment I use as an electron microscope specialist is very expensive to maintain and needs to be turned into a shared resource. Ultimately, users from all over the campus are taking advantage of these tools and advancing their science through this shared infrastructure, and I am happy with that,” adds LeBeau. “More generally, the microscope often questions what individuals believe to be true about previously studied materials. The results are always fascinating.

LeBeau notes that when his team was given the opportunity to use the microscope, they sought to address challenging problems that required new approaches to data collection and analysis.

According to LeBeau, we select problems that are difficult to solve using traditional techniques and that require new approaches to extract information from our databases.

LeBeau investigated relaxant ferroelectrics, a class of materials used in actuators, energy storage, and ultrasonic technology. Although these materials have been investigated for decades, their large heterogeneity at the nanoscale makes their electromechanical properties difficult to understand. LeBeau's team was now able to explain the properties of the lead-containing material by examining the material's structure using the latest electron microscopy methods.

According to LeBeau, impact is always the primary consideration in everything we do. “Practice is really important when we pursue challenges because it shows us whether insights can impact the functioning of an entire domain.”

LeBeau's research includes examining how machine learning can be used to accelerate data collection for the microscope.

LeBeau says transmission electron microscopy is typically a relatively slow technique. “However, you can envision a scenario where a self-powered microscope could align the microscope and the sample much more quickly and consistently than a human could. By doing this, we can compile a comprehensive statistical description of the data. Machine learning can both help collect data and extract more data from the data we have.

LeBeau's career has focused on improving the quantity and reproducibility of electron microscopy. However, he does not think that creativity is sacrificed in the name of quantification.

According to LeBeau, “science is indeed a creative pursuit.” “Creativity comes not only from coming up with new experimental designs or theories, but also choosing how to present your data visually and informatively. The work we do has a strong creative component.




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