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Orion Nanofab


Cambridge has acquired a powerful new capability, through the EPSRC Strategic Equipment process, with the potential to enable important advances in research across a range of disciplines. Orion NanoFab is an exceptionally sophisticated microscope made by ZEISS which will equip researchers across the University, as well as from other institutions and the private sector, with the ability to analyse and modify matter at the nanoscale with unprecedented precision.

Dr Ronan Daly, Head of the Fluids in Advanced Manufacturing research group at the IfM, led the bid for its funding in a coordinated effort with colleagues from the Department of Engineering, the Cavendish Laboratory, and Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, and with wide support. He explains more about why this is such a valuable asset for the University and beyond.

It is rare indeed that a single piece of equipment can offer the potential for substantial developments across a diverse range of research areas, to the extent that it galvanises support from a broad interest group. But such is the case with Orion NanoFab, Cambridge’s newly-procured microscope with world-leading functionality, which has been funded by EPSRC under the Strategic Equipment process and newly installed in the Nanoscience building on West Site.

The significance of bringing this technology to Cambridge is underlined by the weight of support behind the funding bid.

As part of a cross-discipline team involved in the bid, I worked with Dr Stefanie Reichelt (Cancer Research UK, Cambridge Centre), Professor Bill O’Neill (IfM, Engineering), Dr Richard Langford (Physics) and Dr Raymond Wightman (Sainsbury Lab). We had influential backing from two of Cambridge’s Pro- Vice-Chancellors, Professor Andy Neely and Professor Chris Abell.

The bid was supported by over 50 research leaders across the breadth of Cambridge University, researchers in an additional 4 universities, 4 EPSRC Centres for Doctoral Training, 2 Catapult organisations, and 3 industrial networks reaching 1,500 companies.

So what’s special enough about a microscope to generate this level of engagement?

What is Orion NanoFab?

ZEISS has worked with us to construct this unique version of NanoFab, a state-of-the-art system for ultra-high resolution imaging, cross-sectioning, nanopatterning and analysis.

The advanced tool for metrology and machining is a customised helium, neon and gallium ion microscope with cryogenic sample capability. This instrument is of great value to our bioengineering, nanotechnology and clinical research due to two main capabilities.

Ultra-high resolution

Firstly, the tool has a sub-0.5 nanometre image resolution. The microscope can image non-conducting materials at ultra-high resolution without a build-up of charge and with a depth of field 5-10 times higher than a conventional scanning electron microscope (SEM). The quality of imaging is further enhanced by higher integrity of specimens, achieved through advanced cryogenic handling.

One of the problems for examination of biological samples is that specimens need to have liquid water removed to be stable under the high vacuum. But drying out specimens can change how they appear under the microscope. Orion NanoFab’s cryogenic handling system is revolutionary for soft matter, biological and hydrated sample imaging as it can look at samples with this ion beam technology without removing water from within the structure.

Nanoscale machining

Secondly, the three ion beams can be used together for nanopatterning with 2 nanometre resolution.

This means it can directly machine away parts of the sample or write conductive lines with incredible resolution and accuracy.

Research boost

There are many important research projects already underway in Cambridge that will benefit from these capabilities. Among these is work to develop implantable electronics, a field that creates tools to help understand how to diagnose and treat neurological disorders.

Professor George Malliaras, the Prince Philip Professor of Technology here at the University of Cambridge has noted that “this is a major focus of research that we have to address, as the economic burden of brain disorders in the UK is expected soon to exceed £100 billion. With this microscope we have a world-leading tool to help understand drug delivery coatings, implant degradation and ion transport to bring us closer to delivering useful and scaleable therapeutics.”

Potential applications are very varied. Dr David Kent from the Department of Haematology will be using NanoFab for clinical use in bone marrow transplants to understand how to expand adult hematopoietic stem cells outside the body. Professor Ottoline Leyser and Dr Raymond Wightman from the Sainsbury Laboratory will be advancing work on key plant sciences research.

Applications for nanoscale fabrication studies span several research groups across Cambridge departments, including work by Professor Paul Midgley in Materials Science, examining how to fabricate devices at nanoscale. Other early users anticipating valuable advances in research capability include groups from the Wellcome Genome Campus and the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult.

Why has the IfM been actively driving the bid?

Our involvement from the beginning of this project has centred around our work in nanomanufacturing and scale-up. There are many challenges when scaling up the latest emerging technologies from the lab to full-scale manufacturing. In particular, emerging product or material technologies face the challenge of maintaining their novel functionality when produced in increasingly real-world manufacturing environments, at realistic process throughputs, and using standard manufacturing tools.

If we work with the latest biomaterials to grow replacement tissues and organs, with nanomaterials that can deliver drug therapies or personalised diagnostics, or with any of a raft of exciting new technologies, then we are not only relying on chemical and interfacial properties at the nanoscale, but we are purposefully designing them to carry out the required task.

Every step required to process, shape and package these materials is a risk to the carefully chosen structures and chemistry. This means that when carrying out manufacturing research we have to be able to study materials at the nano and sub-nano scale using techniques that won’t compromise their structure. We also need to be able to accurately cut into samples to see what lies beneath the surface. This is especially difficult for soft matter and biological matter characterisation and analysis, because traditionally this matter needs to be completely dehydrated and coated in a thin metal layer to stop charge from building up and to enable imaging at the nanoscale. Orion NanoFab changes this.

Leading one of the IfM’s research projects, Professor Bill O’Neill will be using the incredible machining precision of the Orion NanoFab, and specifically looking at how to link this technology with higher throughput machining processes. Helium and neon milling is still too slow to rely entirely on this technique in an industrial context. Bill has, over the past five years in the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Ultra Precision, been developing hybrid laser-ion production systems to increase productivity whilst maintaining the resolution limits of ion sources. Incorporating this latest tool into the hybrid laser–ion process chain will lead to significant advances in nanofabrication techniques and technologies.

Reaching out

Acquisition of Orion NanoFab received active support from Pro-Vice Chancellors for Enterprise and Business Relations (Professor Andy Neely) and Research (Professor Chris Abell). They will be key to linking this investment to broader strategic and policy initiatives. Both were invited to join the team because of the significance to both the research and industrial communities.

The strategic importance of a shared world-class asset which facilitates greater collaboration and advancement of scientific research fits closely with the mission of the University of Cambridge to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.

Once in place there will be studentships supported by ZEISS to help PhD students explore the full capability of this exciting tool.

To raise awareness widely, there will be efforts to engage with academic and industrial researchers to inform them about Orion NanoFab and how it could support their work. The team behind the bid is actively reaching out to all parties, presenting Orion NanoFab’s capabilities and access procedures to deliver a new, much-needed UK resource.