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Nano-Topics, Macro-Significance

Work gets underway at the new Nanoanalytics Center at the NMI in Reutlingen

Nanotechnology, and with it analytics, is not only becoming increasingly important to the semiconductor industry, nanoanalytics now play a central role in many fields of life science and material research. Research into minute structures – down to the millionth of a millimeter – is now indispensable not just for the industrial development and processing of new materials, but also for fundamental research. Nanoanalytics make it possible to research detailed textures and enter into the realms of atoms, so it spans several areas of fundamental research, as well as applied science and industrial research. Issues revolving around coatings are currently of major interest, especially in the field of medical technology and composite materials used in lightweight construction. This is where the Natural and Medical Sciences Institute at the University of Tübingen (NMI) in Reutlingen comes in. The NMI has already been working in close collaboration with Steinbeis for many years, and the two parties have now joined forces as part of a technology transfer holding.

The Nanoanalytics Center is based on the RegioWIN campus of the NMI and after a construction period of only three years it is already becoming an important port of call in the region. The center is aimed at innovative companies looking into questions regarding material technology and product concepts. More than 50 firms and research institutions already expressed prior interest in using the Nanoanalytics Center, including many leading corporations in the fields of medical technology, vehicle construction, mechanical engineering, and tool building, as well as a number of SMEs in the area. They all hope to benefit from easy access to this new hi-tech field. The scientific partners of the project include five institutes belonging to the Baden-Wuerttemberg Innovation Alliance (innBW) and the University of Tubingen. Tübingen University has set up a special professorial chair for advanced materials to bolster know-how at the center, and a group of specialists is now actually based at the center.

For many customers, the benefits of the new center are evident, for all kinds of issues. For example, the uppermost layers of atoms have a crucial impact on many material properties such as corrosion and wear. In innovative areas of business like electric vehicles or additive manufacturing, understanding the exact atomic composition below the surface of materials – and not just the surface itself – is of far-reaching significance for how they can be used. All of these kinds of issues require the right analytical tools – like the high-resolution electron microscopes at the NMI, which can help explain the differences in structures and chemistry in fine detail.

Perfect examples that they will be keen to highlight at the new center are therefore two transmission electron microscopes. These can be used to analyze and study structures down to single atoms and determine atomic and chemical composition. The high-end instruments place the NMI in the top league of institutes with the best analytical electron microscopes in the world. For example, they simplify examining atoms from a distance of only 79 picometers. For reference, the atomic diameter of hydrogen is 100 picometers. They also make it possible to quantify the material morphology and composition through elemental analysis using an energy-dispersive X-ray detector.

Aside from the investment in microscopes, a significant proportion of funding is being used for essential sample preparation. A number of methods have been brought in and set up to prepare a whole host of different materials without artefacts, including biological specimens. The Nanoanalytics Center opens the door to some amazing possibilities, and the team at the center is in the starting blocks and preparing to answer all kinds of questions. The facilities were made possible thanks to funding through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and backing from the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg (Ministry for Economic Affairs).