New X-ray instrument sets Auburn University apart in state of Alabama, furthers renewal energy research

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Research at Auburn University that might one day expand the output of batteries and fuel cells is being furthered using a new X-ray device that is the only one of its kind in the state of Alabama.

College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, professors Ryan Comes, the Thomas and Jean Walter Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics, and Byron Farnum, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, have worked together for three years on research for next-generation materials for electronic and energy applications at Auburn. Now, they are bringing world-class X-ray diffraction instrumentation to the state of Alabama for the first time.

A $280,487 grant with cost-sharing of $120,000 has enabled Auburn to add a Rigaku SmartLab X-Ray Diffraction, or XRD, instrument for core research through the Major Research Instrumentation program from the National Science Foundation, or NSF.

The real-world impact of this instrumentation has direct applications to electronic materials and renewable energy, including perhaps expanding the output batteries and fuel cells, which is a prime area of focus of Farnum’s research. The equipment—located in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry building—can scatter X-rays off atoms in a crystal, providing detailed measurements of atomic structure with impressive rapid-data acquisition.

“No other instrument in the entire state of Alabama has such finely tuned resolution designed for materials research,” Farnum said.

That capability means that researchers can precisely measure the properties of ultrathin materials less than 100 atoms thick, materials that Farnum and Comes routinely study in their research. The new instrumentation allows all X-ray scattering experiments, including powder diffraction, thin films metrology, small-angle X-ray scattering, in-plane scattering and microdiffraction, with data collected from those experiments directly influencing the professors’ research.

The elite machine uses a three-kilowatt anode X-ray generator, which is optimal for advanced thin film measurements. The SmartLab Guidance software aids the user in both alignments and setup, and the high-temperature measurements with a heated stage can exceed 1,000 degrees Celsius.

The system also is equipped with a unique battery cell attachment to study how materials used for energy storage transform when they charge and discharge.

“It is critical for COSAM to make these kinds of investments that provide state-of-the-art instrumentation to enhance the research capabilities of our faculty and students,” said Edward Thomas Jr., professor and associate dean for research and graduate studies. “We are very proud of the hard work that our faculty did to bring this new X-ray diffraction instrumentation to Auburn University.”

This interdisciplinary partnership includes Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering with Masoud Mahjouri-Samani and Peng Li from Electrical and Computer Engineering; Tae-Sik Oh from Chemical Engineering; and Majid Beidaghi from Materials Engineering. Along with Farnum, Oh and Beidaghi are part of the Auburn energy research cluster, while Comes, Li and Mahjouri-Samani are part of the university’s emerging quantum research initiative.

“The battery testing capability of this instrument is a crucial tool to support our effort to develop the next generation of batteries here at Auburn,” Beidaghi said.

The award includes a broader impact with other institutions throughout the state benefitting from the use of the equipment. It will be available for academic and industrial use by outside researchers by contacting either Comes or Farnum, and the Auburn professors plan to use the device for a variety of research projects in the coming years.

Summer undergraduate researchers in the NSF-funded Collaborative Approaches among Scientists and Engineers program also will perform research projects on the system each year.

“Auburn University is emerging in the thin-films materials research realm,” said Comes, winner of the 2020 Air Force Young Investigator Award and 2021 National Science Foundation Career Award. “This instrumentation will help COSAM and Auburn University make a tremendous impact through next-generation materials while training future scientists and engineers in this interdisciplinary research field.”

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