SCIENTISTS at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University made a major breakthrough – the first of its kind in Africa – when they found their new multimillion-rand electron microscope produced excellent images of a substance that has the potential to revolutionise the electronics industry.
While the substance, called graphene – which was first identified by scientists in the UK in 2004 – is researched on a small scale globally, Africa has until now not had a microscope advanced enough to isolate single atoms in graphene.
Graphene, which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms packed in a honeycomb structure, is stronger than steel and conducts electricity as well as copper, giving it a promising future as part of high- speed electronic devices.
NMMU’s director of the Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (HRTEM), Prof Jan Neethling, said the microscope could provide information about the nano-structures of many types of material. The centre was set up late last year at a cost of R126-million.
The first good images of single iron atoms in graphene from the microscope were successfully produced last week as part of an initiative in collaboration with Oxford University in the UK.
On Friday last week Dr Jamie Warner of Oxford’s department of materials, together with his NMMU peers Neethling, Prof Mike Lee and Dr Jaco Olivier, witnessed the breakthrough.
Neethling said the state-of-the-art Centre for HRTEM provided excellent opportunities for students to undertake world- class research.
For the past two years researchers at NMMU and Oxford University have been working together to produce a technique to identify high-quality graphene.
"There are only a handful of research groups in the world who are able to perform this experiment,” said Warner, who was in Nelson Mandela Bay to witness the breakthrough first hand.
By using a special imaging mode, a finely focused beam of electrons is scanned over the specimen, producing an image at a 100-million times magnification.
After optimising the electron microscope for a day, Olivier succeeded in producing clear images of single iron atoms bonded to the carbon atoms in graphene.
"This achievement proves the Centre for HRTEM at NMMU has the equipment and expertise to participate in cutting- edge research programmes with top international scientists,” Warner said.