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INL unveils new electron microscope, 3D printer for collaborative research projects

Science & Technology

IDAHO FALLS – The Idaho National Laboratory’s Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls held a ribbon-cutting and open house this week for two new pieces of equipment.

One piece of equipment is a scanning transmission electron microscope, and the other is a 3D metal printer capable of printing structural materials for extreme environments.

Both devices will primarily be used for collaborative research projects between the CAES, Boise State University, Idaho State University and the University of Idaho.

Marianne Walck, deputy laboratory director for science and technology at the INL, tells the microscope will be used for “atomistic level imaging of materials” at “unprecedented levels” of resolution.

“We can use it for (research) in nuclear energy or for more general purposes. The idea is to understand fundamental properties of materials — they could be natural or manufactured materials — so that you understand how it’s going to behave when you’re using it,” Walck says.

Information obtained from this kind of research impacts multiple industries and could impact how certain products are made.

The microscope is capable of seeing something up to 50 picometres in size. One picometre is equal to one trillionth of a meter, so it’s very tiny.

Some of the materials that will be analyzed with the microscope will be irradiated, which is why it’s housed in a microscopy suite.

The $5 million microscope was provided by internal funds at the INL and has been in development since 2019.

The scanning transmission electron microscope at the CAES in Idaho Falls. | Courtesy: INL

The 3D printer will be used to create electronics that can withstand extreme temperatures. Researchers will be printing sensors, or small metallic shapes, to test the melting point of different metals.

“When you’re in some of these hostile environments, it’s really hard to put sensors in there because it gets destroyed. These are sensors that are actually meant to be destroyed, but you have to make them,” says Walck.

What makes the printer at the CAES different from other 3D printers is that metal, ceramic and a variety of other powders can be used to manufacture electronic devices.

CAES Associate Director Dave Estrada says silver is currently the only metallic particle that’s commercially available for this type of project, and the goal is to expand the variety of inks that can be used to make metal sensors.

“Silver is a good conductor, and for most applications, that works okay. But if you want to put these electronics in a nuclear reactor, then you start to hit up limitations with radioactivity, melting points and these kinds of things. That lab is designed to make custom inks, so we can do conductor inks, semiconductor inks and insulator inks. That way, you have all the elements to print electronics,” Estrada says.

But, like the microscope, the 3D printer isn’t just for nuclear projects. It’s used for a wide variety of research projects.

“We actually have a program at Boise State to develop these materials so you can print electronics on the space station. There are a lot of failures of electronics on the space station and there’s no way to repair them. So if we can give them their own library of inks they can do their own circuit board repairs,” says Estrada.

A demo for the 3D printer on the space station is scheduled for 2024.

The 3D printer at the CAES is a $1 million grant project through the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s been in the works for about seven years.

3D printer
3D metal printer at CAES | Courtesy: INL

Walck is “extremely excited” to have these pieces of equipment in an open building on the INL campus in Idaho Falls, which will allow easy access for students and researchers to work together on collaborative projects.

“We strive to have the three universities working together. Universities don’t always work together. Sometimes, there is competition (between them),” Walck says. “That (kind of collaboration) is what CAES was envisioned to be back when it started more than 10 years ago. That’s what we’re continuing to (do).”

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