Sheffield SMALL lab to give new insights into nanomaterials

Sheffield University has today opened a £2m laboratory that will let scientists analyse the structure of nanomaterials in unprecedented detail.

Experiments that had to be scheduled in advance at the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire or the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, can now be conducted immediately in Sheffield.

The Soft Matter AnalyticaL Laboratory (SMALL) – part-funded by EPSRC – will use rheology and X-ray scattering techniques to enable faster advances in the study of polymers, soft matter and colloids. This research has applications in industrial sectors including energy, chemicals, engine oils, food and electronics.

The centrepiece of the new SMALL facility is a Small Angle X-ray Scattering (SAXS) instrument, built by Xenocs, the first of its kind in the UK to use a liquid gallium MetalJet X-ray source. This design is said to produce a high-intensity X-ray beam that enables scientists to study changes in larger structures over shorter time scales than previously possible.

Senior scientist, Dr Oleksandr Mykhaylyk, who will manage the facility, said: “Conventional solid metal anodes cannot be easily cooled and can melt if used at high power. Because gallium is liquid at room temperature, this problem is avoided with the MetalJet, producing an X-ray beam that is up to 100 times brighter than our old instrument.

“This means we can analyse samples within minutes, rather than several hours. The smallest structures that we can study are close to the size of atoms, while the largest structures are up to 700nm.”

The new SAXS instrument also enables analysis of the dimensions and structure of thin films, such as semiconductors or the active components of solar cells.

Prof Philip Nelson, chief executive, EPSRC, said: “Despite the minute size of the matter that will be analysed, work at SMALL could have a big impact and wide-ranging implications, with potential applications in fields ranging from medicine to energy.

“Funding for SMALL followed an EPSRC Experimental Equipment Call designed to update and upgrade specialist equipment in universities across the UK and support our portfolio of world-class research.”

The new facility will also be open to scientists from the Universities of Leeds, Manchester, Durham, Liverpool, York, Lancaster and Newcastle.