Engineers to use surface scanning to improve manufacturing

Faster, more precise and less wasteful manufacturing processes could be developed, thanks to a scanning technology that provides an unprecedented insight into surfaces at the atomic scale.

Researchers at the Centre for Materials and Structures at Liverpool University, led by Prof Paul Chalker, are establishing a Low Energy Ion Scattering (LEIS) facility with funding from EPSRC.

The technique fires beams of low energy ions at the surface of an object to reveal information about the atomic structure of the surface.

The researchers aim to develop a tool to examine the surface of components during the manufacturing process itself, or upon exposure to reactive environments. In this way they hope the approach will lead to improved manufacturing methods and better products.

As the beam of low energy ions is directed at the surface to be studied, the charged particles interact with it, according to Chalker. “They hit the surface of any material you want to look at really quite gently, and the ions interact with the atoms in the surface of the material and bounce back,” he said.

The amount of energy that the ions lose when they interact with the surface depends on the mass of the atom, he said. In this way the technique can reveal details about the type of atoms in the surface of the material.

“By tuning the energy of the incoming ions, you can look at the very outer surface of the material, or you can tune the scattering process so that you can look just underneath the surface,” said Chalker.

The researchers plan to combine the LEIS technique with a processing chamber, which will allow samples to be treated using different manufacturing techniques and then intermittently characterised without exposing the surfaces to atmosphere.

“Our project couples together a LEIS spectrometer with a manufacturing chamber, to allow us to simulate various manufacturing environments,” he said. “We can put various component parts into the simulated environment, and then we can process them by adding or removing material.”

By carrying out repeated cycles of a simulated processing treatment – such as atomic layer deposition – and LEIS characterisation, the technique will reveal snap-shots of the evolving surface structure, and what atomic-scale mechanisms are taking place during manufacturing.

The researchers hope to have the facility built by next summer.