IITs get cutting-edge tech to develop new materials

New Delhi: In what could help India leapfrog others in the field of 'materials characterisation', six Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials (ARCI), Hyderabad, have come together to put in place a state-of-the-art 'atomic probe' research in collaboration with department of science and technology's (DST) 'Nano' mission.

These seven institutions, under the leadership of IITMadras, brought to India its first Local Electrode Atom Probe(LEAP) equipment at a cost of Rs 32 crore, making it one of the major hubs of research in designing materials with tailored properties. Thisisexpectedtohave a major impact across industries — from steel to automobiles and energy to transport.

Globally, there are 90 LEAP platforms. The one installed at IIT-Madras in July 2017 is the first of its kind as it can be operated from anywhere in the world. This is a high-performance microscope that provides a precise atom-by-atom view of a material, enabling a true threedimensional (3D) atomicscale reconstruction and is expected to impart a thrust to researchin nanotechnology, among other fields.

While institutions with funding from government agencies are known to have set up national research facilities, this is the first time when seven top institutions in the country have contributed to set up such a platform. Madras, Delhi, Bombay, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Ropar IITs and ARCI contributed Rs 2 crore each, the remaining fund coming from the DST's 'nano-mission' headed by professor C N R Rao.

Dr B S Murty, head of IITMadras's department of metallurgical and materials engineering, said, "The knowledge of atomic distribution in a material at the nano-scale is vital for those interested to design and create new materials. Facilities to study material at a small scale are very few even globally and very expensive to create. Most microscopes are 2D. We have been able to set up a 3D atom probe."

Murty expanded, "... if we understand the distribution of the atom in materials... when we are doping a material — say silicon, which is needed in all electronics — and if we add germanium, we will change its properties. But in which specific location are we going to add the element and design new materials with new properties is what this research is all about."

'Atom Probe' technology has been there for over 50 years. The LEAP came 15 years ago. But in pre-LEAP days atom probe technology was slow, where leaving the sample at the machine for 24 hours yielded about 5 lakh atoms. LEAP in one hour yields5 million. Unfortunately, India never had a LEAP and Indian researchers used to depend on collaborators abroad after sending samples for research at the frontiers of materials science.

"The big impact will come in the energy sector," Murty said, adding that the automobile sector, which is looking for light but strong materials, will also be interested. Firms like GE, Boeing, and HALwillbe among those interested, he said.


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