Through sophisticated and ultra-high-resolution techniques Nanyang Technological University or NTU's Facility for Analysis, Characterisation, Testing and Simulation (FACTS) is emerging as an advanced centre using electron microscopy methods.
FACTS serves the entire NTU with its expanded repertoire of research equipment, including two aberration-corrected transmission electron microscopes, a range of scanning electron microscopes and several X-ray-based instruments. It serves approximately 650 active users per year, which means each instrument rarely sits idle.
FACTS recruited expert scientists who not only help users but also perform and publish their own research materials aimed at improving and developing new techniques.
Professor Lam Yeng Ming, Chair of NTU's School of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) stated, "With techniques such as electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction analysis, we are able to directly observe even individual atoms and measure how they behave under various conditions."
Prof Lam, who is also the Director of FACTS, cited an example. "My research area is in nanostructured functional materials where we are interested in how their properties are related to the organisation of their atoms and what kinds of defects exist in the materials" and the only way to do so is by "using X-rays or transmission electron microscopy (TEM)."
Prof Lam explained that the cost of acquiring such equipment in FACTS is very high "so a shared facility like FACTS makes practical sense," but the facility cannot exist without the support from NTU to acquire and maintain the instruments.
Assistant Professor Sara Sandin, Deputy Director of FACTS believes that there is no point of "having the best equipment if you don't operate them under the right conditions," as these are very sensitive equipment.
It should be noted that at FACTS a booming amount of data, up to two terabytes is being generated per day and analysis of this amount of data needs significant computing power and advanced image processing procedures. So as per Asst Prof Sandin, data storage and transfer remain a challenge.
But she hopes to see FACTS as a centre for the development of advanced electron microscopy methods, especially for new applications, and said, "We have amazing tools at FACTS, but innovation in terms of sample preparation and image analysis are also important."
However, "this is not just a problem for NTU; it's a problem for everyone worldwide," Prof Lam noted, adding that the capabilities of FACTS helped to convince multinational companies like Procter & Gamble and Rolls-Royce to carry out research and development in Singapore.
He also mentioned that "Singapore now has a critical mass of microscopists; I think FACTS will allow more productive interactions between the various universities, schools and institutions."