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Imaging of liquids and cryogenic biological materials by electron microscopy has been recently enabled by innovative approaches for specimen preparation and the fast development of optimized instruments for cryo-enabled electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Yet, cryo-EM typically lacks advanced analytical capabilities, in particular for light elements. With the development of protocols for frozen wet specimen preparation, atom probe tomography (APT) could advantageously complement insights gained by cryo-EM. Here, we report on different approaches that have been recently proposed to enable the analysis of relatively large volumes of frozen liquids from either a flat substrate or the fractured surface of a wire. Both allowed for analyzing water ice layers which are several micrometers thick consisting of pure water, pure heavy water, and aqueous solutions. We discuss the merits of both approaches and prospects for further developments in this area. Preliminary results raise numerous questions, in part concerning the physics underpinning field evaporation. We discuss these aspects and lay out some of the challenges regarding the APT analysis of frozen liquids.
Atom probe tomography (APT) is often introduced as providing “atomic-scale” mapping of the composition of materials and as such is often exploited to analyze atomic neighborhoods within a material. Yet quantifying the actual spatial performance of the technique in a general case remains challenging, as it depends on the material system being investigated as well as on the specimen's geometry. Here, by using comparisons with field-ion microscopy experiments, field-ion imaging and field evaporation simulations, we provide the basis for a critical reflection on the spatial performance of APT in the analysis of pure metals, low alloyed systems and concentrated solid solutions (i.e., akin to high-entropy alloys). The spatial resolution imposes strong limitations on the possible interpretation of measured atomic neighborhoods, and directional neighborhood analyses restricted to the depth are expected to be more robust. We hope this work gets the community to reflect on its practices, in the same way, it got us to reflect on our work.
Analyzing porous (nano)materials via atom probe tomography has been notoriously difficult. Voids and pores act as concentrators of the electrostatic pressure, which results in premature specimen failure, and the electrostatic field distribution near voids leads to aberrations that are difficult to predict. In this study, we propose a new encapsulating method for porous samples using a low melting point Bi–In–Sn alloy, known as Field's metal. As a model material, we used porous iron made by direct-hydrogen reduction of single-crystalline wüstite. The complete encapsulation was performed using in situ heating on the stage of a scanning electron microscope. No visible corrosion nor dissolution of the sample occurred. Subsequently, specimens were shaped by focused ion-beam milling under cryogenic conditions at −190°C. The proposed approach is versatile and can be applied to provide good quality atom probe datasets from micro/nanoporous materials.
Three-dimensional field ion microscopy is a powerful technique to analyze material at a truly atomic scale. Most previous studies have been made on pure, crystalline materials such as tungsten or iron. In this article, we study more complex materials, and we present the first images of an amorphous sample, showing the capability to visualize the compositional fluctuations compatible with theoretical medium order in a metallic glass (FeBSi), which is extremely challenging to observe directly using other microscopy techniques. The intensity of the spots of the atoms at the moment of field evaporation in a field ion micrograph can be used as a proxy for identifying the elemental identity of the imaged atoms. By exploiting the elemental identification and positioning information from field ion images, we show the capability of this technique to provide imaging of recrystallized phases in the annealed sample with a superior spatial resolution compared with atom probe tomography.
Atom probe tomography (APT) helps elucidate the link between the nanoscale chemical variations and physical properties, but it has a limited structural resolution. Field ion microscopy (FIM), a predecessor technique to APT, is capable of attaining atomic resolution along certain sets of crystallographic planes albeit at the expense of elemental identification. We demonstrate how two commercially available atom probe instruments, one with a straight flight path and one fitted with a reflectron lens, can be used to acquire time-of-flight mass spectrometry data concomitant with a FIM experiment. We outline various experimental protocols making the use of temporal and spatial correlations to best discriminate field-evaporated signals from the large field-ionized background signal, demonstrating an unsophisticated yet efficient data mining strategy to provide this discrimination. We discuss the remaining experimental challenges that need to be addressed, notably concerned with accurate detection and identification of individual field-evaporated ions contained within the high field-ionized flux that contributes to a FIM image. Our hybrid experimental approach can, in principle, exhibit true atomic resolution with elemental discrimination capabilities, neither of which atom probe nor FIM can individually fully deliver—thereby making this new approach, here broadly termed analytical field ion microscopy (aFIM), unique.
We report on comparative atom probe tomography investigations of γ/γ′-forming Co–12Ti–4Mo–Cr alloys. Moderate additions of Cr (2 and 4 at%) reduced the γ/γ′ lattice misfit and increased the γ′ volume fraction of a Co–12Ti–4Mo alloy significantly. These microstructural changes were accompanied by changes in the elemental partitioning between γ and γ′ and site-occupancy in γ′. Spatial distribution maps revealed that Mo occupied both Co and Ti sub-lattice sites in γ′. In agreement with the experimental data, thermodynamic calculations predicted a stronger tendency for Mo to occupy the Co-sites than for Cr and an increase in Cr fraction on the Ti-sites with increasing Cr content.
Atom probe tomography (APT) is particularly suited for the analysis of nanoscale microstructural features in metallic alloys. APT has become important in the quantitative assessment at high spatial resolution of light elements, which are notoriously difficult to analyze by electron- or X-ray-based techniques. These control the physical properties of high-strength materials and semiconductors. However, the mass spectrometer of state-of-the-art commercial atom probes with the highest spatial precision and detection efficiency are optimized for elements with mass-to-charge ratios corresponding to Fe and neighboring elements. Little is known on the theoretical performances for light elements. Here, we discuss the theoretical instrumental performance of one such instrument using accurate three-dimensional transient electrostatic simulations in a time-varying field approach. We compare the simulations to experimental measurements obtained on an FeBSi bulk-metallic glass. Dynamics effects during the ion's flight are revealed when examining multi-hit mass-to-charge correlations, and we demonstrate their influence on the mass resolution. The model reveals significant differences in ion projection as a function of the mass. We discuss how these chromatic aberrations affect the spatial precision. This approach shows that by tuning the shape of the voltage pulses used to trigger field evaporation, minimizing the influence of these detrimental dynamic effects is possible.
Interfaces play critical roles in materials and are usually both structurally and compositionally complex microstructural features. The precise characterization of their nature in three-dimensions at the atomic scale is one of the grand challenges for microscopy and microanalysis, as this information is crucial to establish structure–property relationships. Atom probe tomography is well suited to analyzing the chemistry of interfaces at the nanoscale. However, optimizing such microanalysis of interfaces requires great care in the implementation across all aspects of the technique from specimen preparation to data analysis and ultimately the interpretation of this information. This article provides critical perspectives on key aspects pertaining to spatial resolution limits and the issues with the compositional analysis that can limit the quantification of interface measurements. Here, we use the example of grain boundaries in steels; however, the results are applicable for the characterization of grain boundaries and transformation interfaces in a very wide range of industrially relevant engineering materials.