Dancing Electrons Telling Material Stories


Vivian Tong

#47 Under the Microscope | Dancing Electrons Telling Material StoriesPranoti | Vivian
00:00 / 05:42

Higher Research Scientist

National Physical Laboratory, NPL(UK)

#48 Under the Microscope | Dancing Electrons Telling Material StoriesPranoti | Vivian
00:00 / 20:13

Please explain your research in simple words

I use electron microscopy to look at the micro-scale crystal structure of materials, and specialise in developing electron diffraction techniques.
Put simply, I make electrons dance in formation by firing them at a material I want to study. I then interpret photos of the dancing electrons to tell life stories of materials used in aeroplanes, drills, and computers.

Sunday - Introduction: Materials, microscopes and me

Monday - Work: My job at the National Physical Laboratory, and how I got here

Tuesday - Research: Dancing electrons, colourful pictures, and the science behind it

Wednesday - STEM Outreach: Beyond the occasional school visit?
Thursday - Mental health: Doing research when my brain has a mind of its own
Friday - Faith: How being both Christian and a scientist affects my research

Saturday - You: Wise people on twitter I've learnt lots from.
#AskMeAnything from 6-6:30pm (BST) each weekday evening!

What can the followers expect in your curation week?

How did you end up in your current research field?

I wanted to be a scientist when I was 6 years old because they invented stuff. My background is in Materials Science; my PhD research used Electron Backscratter Diffraction to study zirconium alloys used in nuclear reactors. Now, I work at the National Physical Laboratory (www.npl.co.uk), developing new methods to interpret microscopy data to tell us useful things about materials.

I characterise and manipulate the micro- and nano-scale structure of engineering materials to make them stronger, better and last longer.

How and where does your research fall in the domain of materials/nano science?

Which research project are you most proud of and could you explain it in simple words in the section we call #InOtherwords?

Zirconium is a metal used in nuclear reactors, where the fuel is contained in long, thin-walled zirconium tubes. On the micro-scale, zirconium is made of small crystals packed together called grains. Grains are usually about 0.01 mm in diameter, but sometimes, maybe near a weld, a grain will start engulfing the grains around it, and grow to > 50 times its original size! Big grains tend to be weak spots, so we want to avoid unexpectedly big grains hanging around in zirconium tubes.
The project I did was to find out how these big grains form, so that nuclear engineers can make sure that they don't accidentally form when making tubes for nuclear reactors, or grow as the reactor is operating.

Read more here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actamat.2017.03.002 [open access].

1. Open access journal preprints or publications to become standard practice!

2. More accessible research grant/fellowship application processes, e.g. through multi-stage shortlisting+application processes, so that applicants don't spend hundreds of hours writing an application with a ~10 % success rate.

3. For early career researchers to have increased exposure to non-academic research career paths, beyond 'so-and-so went into industry'.

If you had 3 wishes to improve your research experience, what would you ask for (not promising anything here!)?

What are you most looking forward to in the next 3 months?

Right now, many non-critical workers in the UK are working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I'm looking forward to getting back into the lab when the pandemic is over!

Data analysis methods that are more than just a pretty picture!

The technique I've helped develop, electron backscatter diffraction, can capture detailed information about all kinds of material properties, but it's most famous for producing colourful micrographs. Finding ways to extract and visualise this detailed information is one of the big challenges in this field!

Which challenges/questions is the nano/materials science field facing at the moment?