From the thin films that protect our smartphones, to the coatings that make it possible for airplane pilots to see out the window, to the surface treatments that improve medical implant safety, the surfaces of materials are particularly important to our everyday lives. By studying the chemical structure of material surfaces, researchers can ensure they develop materials that have the properties they desire—whether it’s water-resistance, adhesiveness, protection against corrosion, or lack of contamination.
Over the years, surface analysis has continued to mature as an area of research as scientists explore surface-related problems involving a wide variety of materials. And as we enter a new decade, more advancements are expected to occur. Here are three surface analysis trends I’m seeing and that I believe will continue to be important in 2020 and beyond:
- Surface analysis continues to be democratized. As recently as 10 or 15 years ago, surface analysis techniques such as X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS), Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry (SIMS), and Auger Electron Spectroscopy (AES) required a specialized expert who served as the go-to-person for microscope-related analyses. Yet over time, improvements in instrumentation have made these tools simpler to use, extending these techniques to a broader number of users. Today, users can spend less time coming up-to-speed on XPS and other instruments and more time focusing on material exploration. In addition, users can now easily combine XPS with multiple other techniques to obtain different information from the same sample, giving users the exact data needed to tell the story locked inside the material they’re investigating.
- Industry is embracing surface engineering. Today, XPS is increasingly used not only for specialized surface analysis, but also as a general-purpose characterization technique to better understand the chemical structure of their materials. Why is this? Because if you can easily find the answer to your problem, then it becomes considered a general characterization method, one you can just walk up and use. This is especially true as technology improves, and solutions such as gas cluster ion sources help to solve materials problems that couldn’t previously be analyzed. The move to using surface analysis more generally started in academia, and as students graduate, they are taking the same toolkit into their jobs. I have already seen this in Asia, where the exposure of students to surface analysis has historically been high, and now it’s becoming a global phenomenon—one in which XPS is used in the commercial development of batteries, touch-screens, and even ceramics for bathrooms.
- Automation and intelligence are strengthening data integrity. Data reproducibility has become a recurring theme at a number of recent influential conferences such as ECASIA 2019 in September 2019 and at the AVS 66th International Symposium & Exhibition a month later. Conducting a routine analysis is becoming easier, opening up surface analysis to more scientists. As research continues to move forward, the core tenets of science—the reproducibility of data and solid interpretation and communication methods—are of upmost importance. While there are a lot of ways to fulfill these tenets, the development of intuitive and intelligent software will certainly be a continuing focus. Automation and intelligence are starting to be introduced, and this trend will continue in coming years, extending surface analysis techniques to more users, while making it easier to obtain the accurate, reproducible information required for data integrity.
It’s been interesting to watch surface analysis evolve into a mature technique, and the decade ahead appears just as promising. In the coming years, further advances are poised to extend surface analysis to a broader range of uses, keeping this area of research at the forefront of scientific discovery.
Tim Nunney is a surface analysis marketing manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
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