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Accidental Discovery Shows Electron Beam Radiation Can Repair Nanostructures

Electron beam radiation
Scientists found that electron beam radiation can repair nanostructures, offering a new path to creating flawless materials. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In a recent study that might surprise you, scientists at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities have discovered that electron beam radiation, which they once believed harmed tiny crystals, can, in fact, fix cracks in these nanostructures.

This groundbreaking discovery opens up a new way to make super tiny, flawless crystal structures. This process is really important for making the stuff that goes into all the electronic gadgets we use each day, such as phones and computers.

Andre Mkhoyan, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota and the head scientist on this study, explained, “For a long time, researchers studying nanostructures were thinking that when we put the crystals under electron beam radiation to study them that they would degrade.”

He further said, “What we showed in this study is that when we took a crystal of titanium dioxide and irradiate it with an electron beam, the naturally occurring narrow cracks actually filled in and healed themselves.”

Accidental discovery of electron beam repairing nanostructures

Scientists accidentally made this discovery while using the University of Minnesota’s super fancy electron microscope to look at the crystals for a different reason.

Silu Guo, who is a Ph.D. student in chemical engineering and materials science at the University of Minnesota, said, “I was studying the cracks in the crystals under the electron microscope and these cracks kept filling in.”

She further added, “This was unexpected, and our team realized…there was something even bigger that we should be studying.”

Process of filling the cracks

In this self-healing process, a bunch of tiny atoms in the crystal worked together like a team. They met in the middle of a crack and built a bridge to fill it up. This is the first time scientists have shown how electron beams can be used to carefully create new super tiny structures one atom at a time.

One of the researchers, Professor Bharat Jalan, who works in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota, said, “Whether it’s atomically sharp cracks or other types of defects in a crystal, I believe it’s inherent in the materials we’ve grown, but it’s truly astonishing to see how Professor Mkhoyan’s group can mend these cracks using an electron beam.”

Variations in the study to enhance efficiency

Scientists are planning to take the next step by trying out different things. They want to determine if changing the way they use the electron beam or adjusting the temperature of the crystal can make the process any better or more efficient.

Professor Mkhoyan explained, “First we discovered, [and] now we want to find more ways to engineer the process.”

Apart from Mkhoyan, Guo, and Jalan, the research group also included Sreejith Nair, a Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Minnesota, and Hwanhui Yun, a former graduate student.

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