Breakthroughs in medical applications
Materials science is a really important subject, because if you look at objects we use in many areas of life, often the limiting factor is the materials used to make them.
In the medical world, artificial hips are used a lot for patiets. We study medical materials quite a lot here – artificial hips often fail, and one of the ways that can happen is that metal from the hip shank itself can be deposited on the plastic socket it rotates in.
With the Phenom, we can put the whole hip socket into the microscope – this isn’t possible with the big electron microscopes, where you can only take a small slice of the material. We can see if there is metal deposited on that plastic surface, and we can say without doubt that the metal is titanium from the shank. That’s bad news, because that titanium could get into your bloodstream – so this information could potentially save patient’s lives.
Benefits of the Phenom desktop SEM
Microscopy is essential for studying materials. Desktop instruments like the Phenom are incredibly useful, because you can train someone to use them in just 15 minutes, and they can be used to image a huge range of samples.
Very little preparation is needed – you just put the specimen into the microscope, and 10 minutes later you have your images.
The Phenom not only produces images, it also has an x-ray attachment. By looking at the characteristic x-rays emitted by the material when the electron beam hits the sample, you can tell what that material is.
Breakthroughs in aerospace industry
We do a lot of our work on turbine blades and compressor blades. Electron microscopy, again, is essential for looking at the atomic structure of these materials. Sometimes, a blade will fail and it will be sent here.
The first thing we do is look at the surfaces – again SEM is great in this instance, as we can put the whole blade in a Phenom, and see if there are any surface cracks or other features that give us a clue to what has happened.
A large part of our research is really very basic, blue-sky type research. We are studying new materials that people have never looked at before. We’re trying new alloys, with different compositions. We’re just trying to find materials which are really strong at high temperatures – strong enough to withstand something like a bird strike, whilst operating at the highest temperature possible.
So we’re hoping to develop new materials, really strong materials, which can operate at even higher temperatures – so that ultimately planes will be more efficient, need less fuel, and reduce carbon emissions.