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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.
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.
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.
Analysis and understanding of the role of hydrogen in metals is a significant challenge for the future of materials science, and this is a clear objective of recent work in the atom probe tomography (APT) community. Isotopic marking by deuteration has often been proposed as the preferred route to enable quantification of hydrogen by APT. Zircaloy-4 was charged electrochemically with hydrogen and deuterium under the same conditions to form large hydrides and deuterides. Our results from a Zr hydride and a Zr deuteride highlight the challenges associated with accurate quantification of hydrogen and deuterium, in particular associated with the overlap of peaks at a low mass-to-charge ratio and of hydrogen/deuterium containing molecular ions. We discuss possible ways to ensure that appropriate information is extracted from APT analysis of hydrogen in zirconium alloy systems that are important for nuclear power applications.
Although atom probe tomography (APT) reconstructions do not directly influence the local elemental analysis, any structural inferences from APT volumes demand a reliable reconstruction of the point cloud. Accurate estimation of the reconstruction parameters is crucial to obtain reliable spatial scaling. In the current work, a new automated approach of calibrating atom probe reconstructions is developed using only one correlative projection electron microscopy (EM) image. We employed an algorithm that implements a 2D cross-correlation of microstructural features observed in both the APT reconstructions and the corresponding EM image. We apply this protocol to calibrate reconstructions in a Cu(In,Ga)Se2-based semiconductor and in a Co-based superalloy. This work enables us to couple chemical precision to structural information with relative ease.
Atom probe tomography (APT) is rising in influence across many parts of materials science and engineering thanks to its unique combination of highly sensitive composition measurement and three-dimensional microstructural characterization. In this invited article, we have selected a few recent applications that showcase the unique capacity of APT to measure the local composition at structural defects. Whether we consider dislocations, stacking faults, or grain boundary, the detailed compositional measurements tend to indicate specific partitioning behaviors for the different solutes in both complex engineering and model alloys we investigated.
Atom probe tomography (APT) provides three-dimensional analytical imaging of materials with near-atomic resolution using pulsed field evaporation. The processes of field evaporation can cause atoms to be placed at positions in the APT reconstruction that can deviate slightly from their original site in the material. Here, we describe and model one such process—that of preferential retention of solute atoms in multicomponent systems. Based on relative field evaporation probabilities, we calculate the point spread function for the solute atom distribution in the “z,” or in-depth direction, and use this to extract more accurate solute concentration profiles.
Atom probe tomography (APT) represents a significant step toward atomic resolution microscopy, analytically imaging individual atoms with highly accurate, though imperfect, chemical identity and three-dimensional (3D) positional information. Here, a technique to retrieve crystallographic information from raw APT data and restore the lattice-specific atomic configuration of the original specimen is presented. This lattice rectification technique has been applied to a pure metal, W, and then to the analysis of a multicomponent Al alloy. Significantly, the atoms are located to their true lattice sites not by an averaging, but by triangulation of each particular atom detected in the 3D atom-by-atom reconstruction. Lattice rectification of raw APT reconstruction provides unprecedented detail as to the fundamental solute hierarchy of the solid solution. Atomic clustering has been recognized as important in affecting alloy behavior, such as for the Al-1.1Cu-1.7Mg (at. %) investigated here, which exhibits a remarkable rapid hardening reaction during the early stages of aging, linked to clustering of solutes. The technique has enabled lattice-site and species-specific radial distribution functions, nearest-neighbor analyses, and short-range order parameters, and we demonstrate a characterization of solute-clustering with unmatched sensitivity and precision.
This article addresses gaps in definitions and a lack of standard measurement techniques to assess the spatial resolution in atom probe tomography. This resolution is known to be anisotropic, being better in-depth than laterally. Generally the presence of atomic planes in the tomographic reconstruction is considered as being a sufficient proof of the quality of the spatial resolution of the instrument. Based on advanced spatial distribution maps, an analysis methodology that interrogates the local neighborhood of the atoms within the tomographic reconstruction, it is shown how both the in-depth and the lateral resolution can be quantified. The influences of the crystallography and the temperature are investigated, and models are proposed to explain the observed results. We demonstrate that the absolute value of resolution is specimen specific.
The application of wide field-of-view detection systems to atom probe experiments emphasizes the importance of careful parameter selection in the tomographic reconstruction of the analyzed volume, as the sensitivity to errors rises steeply with increases in analysis dimensions. In this article, a self-consistent method is presented for the systematic determination of the main reconstruction parameters. In the proposed approach, the compression factor and the field factor are determined using geometrical projections from the desorption images. A three-dimensional Fourier transform is then applied to a series of reconstructions, and after comparing to the known material crystallography, the efficiency of the detector is estimated. The final results demonstrate a significant improvement in the accuracy of the reconstructed volumes.