Royal Society names ASU physicist a fellow
It was a problem that remained unsolved for 50 years: Aberrations made the images produced by electron microscopes “fuzzy.” But in the mid 1990s, a team led by Ondrej Krivanek designed and built a practical aberration corrector to improve the resolution of electron microscopes, making it easier for researchers around the world to image and analyze matter – atom by atom. Krivanek, an adjunct physics professor at Arizona State University who has a reputation on campus and off as a “brilliant designer of scientific instruments,” was recently elected a fellow of the Royal Society, the U.K.’s national academy of science.
“Should Superman become interested in nano-objects, he would do well to supplement his X-ray vision with electron vision,” Krivanek quipped when describing his research last month during the Royal Society’s new fellows seminars, which were followed with a ceremony admitting this year’s 44 distinguished scientists into the exclusive and world’s oldest scientific academy.
Two other ASU scientists – George Poste and John Rowell – are among the 1,300 fellows in the Royal Society, which has been at the forefront of inquiry and discovery since its foundation in 1660. Krivanek has dedicated some 30 years of his career to building better electron-optical instruments, improving them to the point where they can resolve and identify individual atoms.
Krivanek pioneers advances of electron microscopy
Some of Krivanek’s early work focused on improving an existing electron microscope and using it to directly image, for the first time, the atomic structure of defects in semiconductors. He also designed numerous instruments for electron energy loss spectrometry (EELS), now used worldwide.
His work on the aberration corrector led to the establishment (with co-founder Niklas Dellby) of the Washington state-based company Nion, of which he is president. The company develops advanced scanning-transmission electron microscopes and other electron-optical instruments.
Of the many discoveries using a Nion microscope, Krivanek points to one from about a year ago as being particularly memorable: “After Nion installed a microscope at the Oak Ridge National Lab in the spring of 2009, I came over with samples of nanotubes and monolayer boron nitride, to see how well the microscope could image them.
“Theory said that we should be getting clearer images of these samples than any images taken before, but we did not have the time at Nion to do the experiments before we shipped the instrument. The theory was right, and once we found the right specimen area, beautifully clear images started appearing. I was ‘driving’ the microscope at the time and I took it as quite normal – the theory said that this should happen. But then a recent PhD graduate came into the room where we were working, and his eyes opened up wide when he saw the images appearing on the computer screen. He stayed for a long time, without saying a word,” Krivanek recalled.
“It was only then that we really saw that we had something special. That hunch was right. The work resulted in a Nature paper, and even got on the cover of the magazine,” Krivanek said of the March 25, 2010, issue of Nature magazine.
Krivanek’s legacy at ASU
Krivanek, who holds a doctorate in physics from Cambridge, first worked at ASU in the early 1980s as an assistant professor in the Center for Solid State Science (now the LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science) and the associate director of the Center for High Resolution Electron Microscopy, alongside John Cowley, hired in 1970 for the university’s Galvin Professorship in Physics. The HREM center was named for Cowley, also a Royal Society fellow, after his death in 2004, commemorating his scientific leadership on ASU’s path to becoming a research one university.
“Ondrej is an amazing individual,” said Robert Nemanich, physics chair. “He was an obvious choice for a physics adjunct because of his impressive leadership in electron microscopy.”
ASU Regents’ Professor John Spence, who worked with Krivanek and Cowley, said Krivanek “always knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
“What he has achieved in aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscopes is remarkable,” Spence said. “He was one of the most focused, competitive, determined and well organized scientists I’ve ever worked with.”
Krivanek modestly describes himself as a “hands-on” researcher. “When there is something to be done in the lab and I am the best person to do it,” he said, “I simply roll up my sleeves and get down to it.”
He’ll have that chance when a new dedicated scanning transmission electron microscope (DSTEM) is installed at ASU next year in the Southwest Regional Center for Aberration Corrected Electron Microscopy.
“We hope that Ondrej will spend time here developing the science for the next generation of electron microscopes and be involved with mentoring students,” Nemanich said.
“This DSTEM will have a monochromator on it, the first one designed by Nion,” explained Ray Carpenter, a professor and researcher at the Eyring Center and principal investigator for the electron microscope project. “It will put ASU at the forefront of materials research.”
A plus for ASU students
Krivanek plans to set up an exchange between ASU and Nion, through which instrumentation-minded doctoral students can spend time at the company, seeing how electron optics is done in practice and getting involved in it. Nion already hires several students each summer, as well as recent graduates with doctoral degrees.
Krivanek’s belief in the potential of young students mirrors the Royal Society’s faith in him. Years ago, his team applied to the Royal Society for support of the research that led to the now-successful aberration corrector. One of the proposal’s referees wrote that the aberration correction had a reputation of being impossibly difficult, but that if anyone was going to solve it successfully, it would be this team. Even with this review “spilling the beans,” said Krivanek, the Royal Society awarded the team the full support they requested.
“Despite the Royal Society’s modest financial resources, it has a history of promoting cutting-edge research,” Krivanek said. “I can’t imagine any other funding agency funding something ‘impossible.’ I am very happy to be associated with it.”
In order to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society, candidates must have made “a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science.” Nominees must be proposed and seconded by two existing fellows to be considered. Candidates must also survive multiple sectional committee reviews as well as a final society vote.
New fellows were officially welcomed during an admission ceremony July 16, which included a signing of the society’s Charter Book that contains the signatures of almost all the fellows in its 350 year history, all the way back to Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke.
Carol Hughes, firstname.lastname@example.org
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences