Automating materials analysis is key to improving and speeding up data collection, according to scientific instrument specialists at Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. is a global provider of scientific instruments, with annual revenue of approximately $35 billion and more than 90,000 employees.

The company’s Automated Particle Workflow (APW) package is designed to improve the research and product development process for industrial, academic and government labs by automating the entire workflow of getting nanoscale information in the Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM), from acquisition to on-the-fly processing. Consequently, relevant, high-resolution results can be acquired over a much larger area, resulting in much higher statistics.

According to the company, APW also makes it possible to carry out multi-material analysis and features greater automation with improved data collection. In combination with Thermo Scientific’s Talos or Spectra (scanning) transmission electron microscopes ((S)TEM) with Maps EDS and Velox Software, researchers can obtain data with much higher statistics (50 particles in total for manual versus >500 particles/hour with the APW package), while also simplifying the process.

APW is fully embedded helping improve data collection from techniques such as Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS). 

APW is developed to support the increasing demand for nanometer scale analysis of particles, precipitates or inclusions in large areas from metals, catalysis, food additives, paints and asbestos markets. Data collected and analyzed by APW includes nanoparticle morphology, chemical composition and structural information (e.g. size, shape, distribution), allowing more research questions to be answered and helping improve product quality.

Until now, researchers have used manual (S)TEM analysis, requiring manual particle counting and processing, limiting the amount of data that could be collected to several dozen particles per day. Using automation, a more thorough overview of the elemental and structural composition of thousands of nanoparticles or precipitates is possible in a manner of hours, as compared to the few dozen that would be found in a day of manual analysis. Not only is statistical information available for large quantities, but individual particles can also be seen with high detail, providing a multi-scale overview of the metal.

Data analysis

 Metal Powder Report spoke to Herman Lemmens, market development manager and Yuri G.M. Rikers, product marketing manager at Thermo Fisher.

“With APW, we integrated and automated both data acquisition and data analysis,” Lemmens said. “Our customers were looking to overcome the limitations of manual particle analysis and wanted a solution that would allow them to analyze a greater volume of particles faster. This integrated workflow not only increases throughput, but also removes operator bias by analyzing each particle instead of relying on the operator to select the most relevant particles. Since it runs unattended, the microscope can be used 24 hours a day. So, there are many benefits of automating this acquisition and analysis workflow.”

I asked them why viewing a larger sample can help improve data quality. “It helps with both statistics and texture,” said Rikers. “For example, take an alloy sample that’s just 10 micrometers wide; you will be able to see the precipitates inside one grain, but in a PlasmaFIB prepared sample that is 100 micrometers wide, you will not only obtain more statistics, but you can further distinguish particles based on their location in the different grains that are now visible. This contextual information is difficult to obtain without having both a larger sample and the automation capabilities to deal with larger numbers of particles.”

Where do you see APW being used with regard to metal powder?

“Specifically in metals, APW will be used mainly in the precipitation-strengthening alloys,” said Lemmens. “The size, shape, composition and spatial distribution of these particles contributes to the mechanical properties of this family of alloys. it is crucial to measure these particles both in the development of new alloys and the process control of existing production.”

Thermo Fisher plans to develop more and more bespoke analysis plans for its customers, tailored perfectly to their applications. “The analysis software, Avizo2D Software, already has artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities,” Rikers said. “AI will make analysis a lot faster and will allow also to see new contextual correlations. Since we are generating more data on more samples, we expect that data mining will become important as well, for instance, to fine-tune production recipes for new catalysts.”

While they believe that nanoparticles will show up more in industrial and consumer products, “an important part of this analysis will be the potential health effects of nanoparticles,” said Rikers. “The European Union has implemented this into REACH regulations, and other regions will most likely do the same.”

In any case, a higher demand for accurate analysis of these particles will be key, they say.

I asked if there were any hurdles in the way in terms of APW development. “On the contrary, we believe that the current application of APW for particle analysis in catalysts, food additives and alloys is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Lemmens. “We expect that our customers will find many other applications for APW that will drive innovation and improve quality of products.”