Many aspects in the design of new materials, and assessment of their performance in harsh reactor environments, must be addressed at the atomic scale; and in many cases APT is now considered an essential characterisation tool. Hence, APT is increasingly needed to underpin research across all stages in the nuclear energy cycle: materials design for new reactor manufacturing, component safety and failure analysis, waste/storage and even accident investigation.
Unique nanoscale insights that can be provided by APT include: investigating radiation-induced atomic-scale solute clustering, characterising segregation to microstructural interfaces, and locating low concentration transmuted elements - all vital information for developing new engineering materials for nuclear applications.
Our vision is to establish a facility with a straightforward, streamlined procedure to request user access and support across every stage of APT analysis. A key to this vision is the synergy between the MRF and Oxford. The MRF provides vital expertise and equipment to receive and prepare APT samples from active materials that Oxford cannot process, such as neutron-irradiated materials from UK or overseas partners. The close proximity of the two institutes enables efficient exchange of researchers/expertise, while APT samples can be readily transferred.
This process will be underpinned by a dedicated Atom Probe Scientist who will act as the single point of contact for users, providing ongoing, tailored experimental support. This will range from training new users to guiding those experienced in APT to undertake more complex experiments, along with undertaking commercial work for industry.
Our strategy is optimised to remove barriers for non-expert users, promote the technique and rapidly expand the facility user-base. The broadening of the user-base combined with enhanced capabilities to address increasingly challenging scientific topics aims to encourage diversifying of the research projects in the UK underpinned by APT, including materials for geological disposal, Gen IV reactors, fusion candidates and even fuels.
Services provided by the facility
• Tailored experimental design - users will be allocated an expert to advise how APT characterisation can assist their work. Discussion will focus on key insights sought and any additional characterisation required, and help to establish an experimental program and plan an instrument access timeline.
• Specimen preparation - the facility will provide access to a dedicated dual-beam FIB instrument at the UKAEA MRF. The Atom Probe Scientist will provide a combination of consultation, training and specimen fabrication, tailored to the needs and expertise of the user.
• Active sample handling - users will receive assistance in all aspects of radioactive material handling, including support from the MRF health physicists and waste management advisors during sample preparation, as well as radiation transport advisors for transfer to Oxford.
• Atom probe – users will be provided with access to the latest generation of atom probe instrumentation. Expert support will be provided to optimise the APT experiment specific to the material to be analysed.
• Data analysis – raw experimental data is reconstructed into a 3D atomistic image using proprietary software. Visualisation and statistical tools are then used to interpret the data. This is often time-intensive, requiring days of analysis. Advanced statistical tools may also need to be developed for deeper insights. Facility users will be provided with supported access to imaging and analysis software, to ultimately develop materials science interpretations for implementation and/or dissemination.
• Training – for ongoing users of the technique the facility will provide expert level training in all aspects of the technique. We envisage creating a community of independent users of APT throughout the UK nuclear materials research community, with the expertise and experience to design their own APT experiments and to advise other researchers at their home institutions.
• Commercial services – the facility will undertake bespoke packages of APT analysis upon commission by industrial partners. We will provide imaging, data analysis and formal reports.