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“Forget what’s on the inside – it’s what’s on the outside that matters”


Newcastle University is set to become the UK’s leading laboratory for making and characterising engineered surfaces.

Building on the University’s £3million National X-ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS) service – including the unique Argon-cluster Thetaprobe – the Government has today announced a further investment of £4.2 million.

This will enable the University's nanoLAB team to employ ion beam technology to provide detailed information about the physical, chemical and electrical properties of any surface at an atomic level.

Operating at a pressure below a trillionth of atmospheric pressure – similar to that experienced in space – ion beam analysis is able to detect surface contamination at a nano-scale level and is used for the development of new technologies such as thin-film solar cells, fuel cells, medical diagnostic devices and cell-specific drug delivery.

The investment includes a Helium Ion Microscope, of which there are only about 20 in the world.

“It enables us to study the surface of any material at a scale of less than one nanometre - roughly the size of an atom,” explains research lead Professor Peter Cumpson.

“A wide range of high value-added products made by UK plc depend on their surfaces for their performance. Engineering those surfaces for specific properties such as adhesion or low wear can make them more competitive and profitable to make and export. Control of surface composition is even more critical in, for example, medical implants or industrial catalysts, where the surface really controls everything.

“The microscope will for the first time allow us to image and analyse tiny surface features so we can begin to understand what is happening on the surface and how, for example, the body reacts to them on a cellular level.”

Today’s funding also includes a Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer, capable of analysing complex biological surfaces such as the surface of medical implants to find those most acceptable to the body and therefore least likely to be rejected.

Working with colleagues in medicine, electrical and chemical engineering, the team will also be able to test the accuracy of complex diagnostic sensors, used, for example, in the rapid diagnosis of disease from very small samples of blood.

“Forget what’s on the inside – it is usually what’s on the outside that matters more,” says Professor Cumpson.

“You can design the best systems in the world but if the surface is contaminated then the parts won’t adhere or the medical diagnostic test won’t work because you’re not actually binding to the molecules you think you are.

“These new instruments mean that here at Newcastle we will be able to reveal exactly what molecules are on the surface of just about any material.”

published on: 16 July 2013