3D Structure of Nanomaterials under Realistic Conditions (RealNano)

Funding source: H2020 ERC Consolidator grant of Prof. Sara Bals (2019-2024)


The properties of nanomaterials are essentially determined by their 3D structure. Electron tomography enables one to measure the morphology and composition of nanostructures in 3D, even at atomic resolution. Unfortunately, all these measurements are performed at room temperature and in ultra-high vacuum, which are conditions that are completely irrelevant for the use of nanoparticles in real applications! Moreover, nanoparticles often have ligands at their surface, which form the interface to the environment. These ligands are mostly neglected in imaging, although they strongly influence the growth, thermal stability and drive self-assembly.

I will develop innovative and quantitative 3D characterisation tools, compatible with the fast changes of nanomaterials that occur in a realistic thermal and gaseous environment. To visualise surface ligands, I will combine direct electron detection with novel exit wave reconstruction techniques.

Tracking the 3D structure of nanomaterials in a relevant environment is extremely challenging and ambitious. However, our preliminary experiments demonstrate the enormous impact. We will be able to perform a dynamic characterisation of shape changes of nanoparticles. This is important to improve thermal stability during drug delivery, sensing, data storage or hyperthermic cancer treatment. We will provide quantitative 3D measurements of the coordination numbers of the surface atoms of catalytic nanoparticles and follow the motion of individual atoms live during catalysis. By visualising surface ligands, we will understand their fundamental influence on particle shape and during self-assembly.

This program will be the start of a completely new research line in the field of 3D imaging at the atomic scale. The outcome will certainly boost the design and performance of nanomaterials. This is not only of importance at a fundamental level, but is a prerequisite for the incorporation of nanomaterials in our future technology.

European Network for Electron Microscopy (ESTEEM3)

Funding source: Horizon H2020- INFRAIA-2018-2020
Participants: Prof. Sara Bals, Prof. Jo Verbeeck, Prof. Sandra Van Aert

ESTEEM3 is an integrating activity for electron microscopy, providing access to the leading European state-of-the-art electron microscopy research infrastructures, facilitating and extending transnational access services of the most powerful atomic scale characterization techniques in advanced electron microscopy research to a wide range of academic and industrial research communities for the analysis and engineering of novel materials in physical, chemical and biological sciences.

ESTEEM3's objective is to deliver more access to more users coming from a wider range of disciplines. Transnational Access to ESTEEM3 centres is obtained through a transparent, simple peer review process based on merit and scientific priorities. Optimum service to users is supported by networking and joint research activities, which address key issues such as specimen preparation, data interpretation, treatment and automation through theory and simulation, and standardization of protocols and methodologies. Innovative activities dedicated to the dissemination of expertise, education and training in cutting-edge quantitative transmission electron microscopy techniques, such as schools, advanced workshops and webinars, are offered to the European electron microscopy users from academia, research institutes and industry.

Directed research programs involving the academic and industrial partners of the consortium focus on the further methodology development in imaging and diffraction, spectroscopy, in-situ techniques and metrology, and on advancing applied research of materials related to ICT, energy, health, and transport for the benefit of European scientists and industry. Moreover, the definition of strategic roadmaps and open access data policies aims to ensure the long-term sustainability of the consortium. In all, ESTEEM3 establishes a strategic leadership in electron microscopy to guide future developments and promote electron microscopy to the widest research community at large.


Picometer metrology for light-element nanostructures: making every electron count (PICOMETRICS)

Funding source: H2020 ERC Consolidator Grant of Prof. Sandra Van Aert


Understanding nanostructures down to the atomic level is the key to optimise the design of advanced materials with revolutionary novel properties. This requires characterisation methods enabling one to quantify atomic structures with high precision.

The strong interaction of accelerated electrons with matter makes that transmission electron microscopy is one of the most powerful techniques for this purpose. However, beam damage, induced by the high energy electrons, strongly hampers a detailed interpretation. To overcome this problem, I will usher electron microscopy in a new era of non-destructive picometer metrology. This is an extremely challenging goal in modern technology because of the increasing complexity of nanostructures and the role of light elements such as lithium or hydrogen. Non-destructive picometer metrology will allow us to answer the question: what is the position, composition and bonding of every single atom in a nanomaterial even for light elements?

There has been significant progress with electron microscopy to study beam-hard materials. Yet, major problems exist for radiation-sensitive nanostructures because of the lack of physics-based models, detailed statistical analyses, and optimal design of experiments in a self-consistent computational framework. In this project, novel data-driven methods will be combined with the latest experimental capabilities to locate and identify atoms, to detect light elements, to determine the three-dimensional ordering, and to measure the oxidation state from single low-dose recordings. The required electron dose is envisaged to be four orders of magnitude lower than what is nowadays used. In this manner, beam damage will be drastically reduced or even be ruled out completely.

The results of my programme will enable precise characterisation of nanostructures in their native state; a prerequisite for understanding their properties. Clearly this is important for the design of a broad range of nanomaterials.

European soft matter infrasctucture (EUSMI)

Funding source: Horizon H2020- INFRAIA-2016-2017
Participants: Prof. Sara Bals

The main objective of EUSMI is to provide an interdisciplinary infrastructure for soft matter research to support about 300 advanced projects in four years. Our strategy is to put the needs of the individual soft matter scientist at the centre of our activities by providing cutting edge, specialized infrastructures that are not available within single institutions or even at the R&D centres of multinationals.

Further, EUSMI aims to provide users with the necessary support in characterizing and investigating of physical properties of new materials on all relevant length and time scales, synthesizing novel soft matter materials, and up-scaling of laboratory synthesis routes. In addition, access will be given to supercomputers in order to gain understanding of these very complex functional materials, thus opening routes for rational design

The activities of EUSMI are organized in 13 Work Packages (WP), which are grouped into four major subjects: Transnational Access (TA), Joint Research Activities (JRAs), Networking Activities (NAs) and Management.

Transnational Access (TA) contains five WPs (WP1 - WP5) by which the access to spectroscopy and rheology (WP1), scattering and diffraction (WP2), imaging (WP3), synthesis and up-scaling (WP4) and to the supercomputing facilities is implemented

The existing installations will be improved and made more user friendly through Joint Research Activities (JRAs), which are organized in 5 WPs (WP6 - WP10), constituting a one-to-one correspondence to the TA work packages.

The networking activities, are organized in two work packages, one for dissemination, education and training (WP11) and the other for communication, with special focus on industry and the non-scientific public (WP12).

Multiscale, Multimodal and Multidimensional imaging for Engineering (MUMMERING)

Funding source: H2020 MSCA European Training Network
Participant: Prof. Sara Bals

The EMAT electron microscopy group (part of the NANO center of excellence) and the Vision Lab from the University of Antwerp will participate in an H2020 European Marie Skłodowska Curie training network Multiscale, Multimodal and Multidimensional imaging for Engineering (MUMMERING). The University of Antwerp will be part of an European consortium consisting of universities and private companies from Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Sweden, Romania and the United Kingdom.

The overarching goal of MUMMERING is to create a research tool that encompasses the wealth of new 3D imaging modalities that are surging forward for applications in materials engineering, and to create a doctoral programme that trains 15 early stage researchers (ESRs) in this tool. This is urgently needed to prevent that massive amounts of valuable tomography data ends on a virtual scrapheap. The challenge of handling and analysing terabytes of 3D data is already limiting the level of scientific insight that is extracted from many data sets. With faster acquisition times and multidimensional modalities, these challenges will soon scale to the petabyte regime. To meet this challenge, MUMMERING will create an open access, open source platform that transparently and efficiently handles the complete workflow from data acquisition, over reconstruction and segmentation to physical modelling, including temporal models, i.e. 3D “movies”. This is considered to be essential for reaching this final step without compromising scientific standards if 3D imaging is to become a pervasive research tool in the visions for Industry.

The 15 ESRs will be enrolled in an intensive network-wide doctoral training programme that covers all aspects of 3D imaging and will benefit from a varied track of intersectoral secondments that will challenge and broaden their scope and approach to research. The ESRs will exit the MUMMERING network as highly attractive and employable PhDs with a practical and qualified take on industrial research.

"Colouring Atoms in 3 Dimensions (COLOURATOM)"

01/01/2014 – 31/12/18

Promotor: Bals Sara

Fin. programma: EU FP7

"ESMI: European Soft Matter Infrastructure"

01/01/2011- 31/12/2015

Promotor: Van Tendeloo Gustaaf

Fin. programma: EU FP7

"Exploring electron vortex beams (VORTEX)"

01/01/2012 - 31/12/2016

Promotor: Verbeeck Jo

Fin. programma: EU FP7

"ESTEEM2: Enabling science and technology through European electron microscopy"


Promotor: Van Tendeloo Gustaaf

Fin. programma: EU FP7

"European development of Superconducting Tapes: integrating novel materials and architectures into cost effective processes for power applications and magnets (EUROTAPES)"


Promotor: Van Tendeloo Gustaaf

Fin. programma: EU FP7


"IFOX: Interfacing Oxides"

01/12/2010- 30/11/2015

Promotor: Van Tendeloo Gustaaf

Fin. programma: EU FP7

"SUstainable Novel FLexible Organic Watts Efficiently Reliable (SUNFLOWER)"

01/12/2012 - 30/09/2015

Promotor: Bals Sara

Fin. programma: EU FP7

COST Action "Nanostructured materials for solid-state hydrogen storage"

25/10/ 2011-24/10/2015

Promotor: Bals Sara

Fin. programma: EU FP7

"Nanocapsules for Targeted Delivery of Radioactivity (raddel)"

01/02/2012 - 31/01/2016

Promotor: Van Tendeloo Gustaaf

Fin. programme: EU FP7