New Microscopes Advance Research and Development at University of Alberta

April 12, 2016 ZEISS Microscopy

Cutting edge ZEISS instruments support material characterization at UofA's nanoFAB Fabrication and Characterization Centre

The University of Alberta’s nanoFAB Fabrication and Characterization Centre is a highly specialized, national center focused on academic and industrial applications for the design, fabrication, manipulation, and characterization of materials at the micro- and nanoscale. Known for expertise in sensors and micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) for natural resources and biomedical applications, the nanoFAB also offers a complementary suite of advanced material, microscopy, and spectroscopy characterization capabilities for the chemical, physical, and structural analysis of materials.

Since 1999, the nanoFAB has worked closely with ZEISS to provide the newest and best characterization and fabrication capabilities to help facilitate research and industrial development. Among the most recent equipment added are the ZEISS EVO and SIGMA scanning electron microscopes and ZEISS ORION NanoFab Helium Ion Microscope (HIM). These new instruments greatly enhance the visualization of materials at the nanoscale, even down to the sub-1 nanometer (nm) scale, allowing researchers to see sensitive features never before possible.

Unique nanoFAB offers training and industrial R&D

Staff and users working within the lithography section of the University of Alberta's nanoFAB cleanroom. Courtesy of UoA nanoFAB & Peng Li.The nanoFAB is an open-access facility that provides a training and service environment for academic and industrial research and development. The facility supports training and process development in four key areas:  micro/nano lithography, plasma and wet etching, physical and chemical vapor deposition and advanced materials characterization. Research areas include sensors/MEMS, energy, environment, and biomedical applications.

The magic happens in a 20,000 square foot communal laboratory space, which includes a 10,000 square foot “ballroom” style cleanroom and 10,000 square feet of vibration-isolated laboratory space. According to nanoFAB Director Dr. Eric Flaim, the nanoFAB is the culmination of over $110 million in equipment and infrastructure since its inception, largely from provincial and federal grants.

The nanoFAB has 192 tools and 16 staff members who provide training and on-site technical assistance for process development and analysis. Operating with a fee structure based on usage and hourly rates per tool, last year the nanoFAB hosted 760 unique users, who amassed a staggering 52,318 tool hours. Subscription and fee-for-service access models are also offered.

The nanoFAB supports characterization of physical, chemical, and structural properties of materials with a full suite of advanced material, microscopy, and spectroscopy characterizationtools, across a 10,000 square foot vibration-isolated lab. Ten electron and ion microscopes are used for nanoscale characterization. The facility’s instruments and cleanroom laboratory provide access to a wide variety of capabilities, including X-ray diffraction (XRD), X-ray fluorescence (XRF), energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX), and electron backscatter diffraction (EBSD). The lab also supports surface analysis techniques, secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), auger spectroscopy, field emission scanning electron microscopy (FESEM), helium ion microscopy (HIM) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM).

Seeking equipment to enhance imaging and fabrication capabilities

The nanoFAB had originally purchased a ZEISS LEO 1430 scanning electron microscope (SEM) nearly two decades ago, and also used a first generation Gemini column for a home-built electron-beam lithography machine, when it was still known as the microFAB. The ZEISS instruments were originally chosen based on their beam stability and precise stage, which was extremely important for lithography purposes “back in the day.” They later added a ZEISS NVision FIB-SEM instrument, which took things up a notch in terms of fabrication, but the demand to fabricate smaller and smaller devices led them down the path towards ever more advanced instruments.

EDS map of ZnO nanowires with Ag nano particles. Courtesy of UofA nanoFAB & Peng Li.
EDS map of ZnO nanowires with Ag nano particles. Courtesy of UofA nanoFAB & Peng Li.

When the nanoFAB received additional funding to enhance its imaging and fabrication capabilities, Dr. Flaim and others on his team jumped at the chance to obtain new tools that would allow them to work at the sub-10 nanometer (nm) scale for fabrication – and even down to the sub-1 nm level for imaging. One of their main project objectives was to be able to conduct sub-10 nanometer fabrication using a focused ion beam to mill directly on their devices.

They embarked on a year-long competitive evaluation process to seek out the best tools for their purposes. After developing a short list of vendors, they spent a full week at each one, assessing which tools might work and which would not. During the visit, they ran their own samples and devices, worked with engineers, and looked at the factory floor where the instruments were built.

High-resolution FE-SEM image of a glancing angle deposited (GLAD) nanostructured Si helix. Courtesy of UofA nanoFAB & Peng Li.

“The nanoFAB’s primary concern was ensuring the best tools would be available to its community,” said Dr. Flaim. “Through the extensive and exhaustive review of vendors, including onsite factory visits and tests, we determined that the ZEISS technologies provided were the best available. ZEISS also provided us with confidence that beyond buying instruments we were buying into a partnership over the life of the tools and an ever-developing technical ecosystem that would benefit our community.”

The nanoFAB had maintained a strong technical relationship with the ZEISS local account manager, utilizing her as a resource for imaging inquiries. Based on this strong working relationship and a long productive history with a local ZEISS service provider, the nanoFAB had confidence in being able to achieve its goals and service commitments to its community.

The right tool for the job at hand

FE-SEM image of glancing angle deposited (GLAD) nanostructured Si helices. Courtesy of UofA nanoFAB & Peng Li.According to Dr. Flaim, the technology evaluation showed that the ZEISS instruments selected are simply the best tools on the market. A particular selling point of ZEISS SIGMA FE-SEM was its high-resolution, low-voltage imaging. The patented industry-leading technique allows greater surface features than any other technology on the market. The system was also robust and easy to use – a strong benefit to the nanoFAB, considering it is a training facility for an ever-changing group of graduate and undergraduate students.

ZEISS SIGMA not only has full-fledged features and capabilities for advanced users, it also provides extremely high resolution for third-party add-on tools such as EBSD and EDX detectors, which provide insight into chemical composition of the material and grain orientation of a structure. It features the ZEISS Gemini column design which is optimized to operate at low kV imaging for excellent surface sensitivity. SIGMA is also configured with in-lens secondary electron (SE) detector and a backscatter (BsD) detector.

ZEISS ORION NanoFab fits the nanoFAB Centre’s need for an instrument to fabricate sub-10 nm structures using a focused helium beam that would let them mill directly on their devices – drawing, writing, cutting, and designing three-dimensional structures – many of which have never been made before. Dr. Flaim explains that they had investigated using standard gallium (Ga) FIB technologies for this purpose. While Ga FIB is a good technique for many applications, the unique ZEISS helium ion microscope was exceptional in terms of not only being able to achieve sub-10nm fabrication, but to extend that further to achieve sub-5nm fabrication without introducing serious damage as the Ga beam does.

Comparison of Helium ion microscopy of insulating samples, clockwise: Cellulose based gauze, Bacteria on polysaccharide medium, ZnO on cellulose fiber, Tight sandstone. Courtesy of UofA nanoFAB & Peng Li.

“The imaging capability of ZEISS ORION NanoFab is second to none. We can directly image insulating materials without having to coat the samples to make them conductive. It’s the only tool on the market that allows you to do native imaging of insulating materials. It has an incredible depth of field, so you get three-dimensional images, where your background and your foreground are completely in focus with one another. Other systems generally require you to take multiple images if you’re interested in getting background and foreground information.” With ZEISS helium ion microscopy, the nanoFAB Centre can take pictures of features not possible with other technologies, some of which damage the sample while the image is being taken.

Helium ion microscopy of “Hichiriki” wood reed from a Japanese Phragmites australis. Courtesy of UofA nanoFAB & Peng Li.
Helium ion microscopy of “Hichiriki” wood reed from a Japanese Phragmites australis. Courtesy of UofA nanoFAB & Peng Li.

ZEISS ORION NanoFab can seamlessly switch between gallium, neon, and helium beams. When coupled with the gallium beam, the tool is transformed into a multi-purpose imaging and fabrication tool. Now the nanoFAB can create complicated devices combining the gallium beam to remove massive material and the helium beam to fine tune delicate sub-10 nm and 5 nm structures.

The nanoFAB worked with Fibics Incorporated, a ZEISS partner company, to develop patterning software and the patterning engine that is attached to the microscope. Fibics develops focused ion beam (FIB) microscopy applications in metallurgy, materials and life sciences. The use of their software allowed the nanoFAB to achieve what it calls “spectacular” fabrication results on its devices. “We do a lot of optomechanical devices, which are a combination of optical and mechanical systems. We have been able to achieve some really interesting fabrication results, solely because of what the instrument is capable of, and that is certainly something that no other tool would be able to do.”

All ZEISS microscopes are heavily used in the nanoFAB for a total of 1522 billable hours since January 2015. Each instrument provides a unique imaging capability, from excellent low-voltage, high-resolution imaging on ZEISS SIGMA, to direct native imaging of insulating samples on ZEISS ORION. “These tools have enhanced the visualization of materials at the nanoscale, allowing us to see a variety of sensitive features not possible before. Also, with the helium ion beam we have been able to push below 5 nm fabrication of elements, enhancing the types of devices we can make for sensors and various optomechanical devices.”

Support and training

Helium ion microscopy of glancing angle deposited (GLAD) ITO film at 45 degree tilt angle. Courtesy of UofA nanoFAB & Peng Li.

Dr. Flaim says his experience with ZEISS customer support and training has been exceptional. “From our local account manager, effectively leading us through the pathway of capabilities available, to the onsite training provided by an application engineer from the factory, who spent a full week working with our technical staff, we have benefited from ZEISS’s customer first approach.” The solid relationship built up during the month-long onsite installation process has extended to the present, so whenever they run into problems they reach out to the ZEISS team, receiving the same high level of support.

The nanoFAB Centre is currently working with ZEISS to develop a correlative microscopy platform within their facility and on the evaluation of various focused ion beam writing techniques to enhance direct patterning of materials.


More details:


About the University of Alberta nanoFAB Center

Who we are: The nanoFAB is a national, open-access training, service, and collaboration centre, focused on academic and industrial applications in micro- and nanoscale fabrication and characterization.

  • Totalling over $110M in specialized equipment and infrastructure
  • Over 200 pieces of equipment in 20 000 sq ft communal laboratory space
  • Complete capabilities for microscopy, spectroscopy, material analysis, lithography, thin-film deposition, and etching
  • Advanced materials, microscopy, and spectroscopy analysis suite
  • Fabrication for MEMS, sensors, microfluidics, and photonics
  • Fully equipped 4″ (100 mm) and 6″ (150 mm) processing capabilities

What we do: 

We are an unparalleled Canadian centre supporting research and development in nano sciences and engineering. Our vision is to be the best research centre available to our diverse user community.

  • Our $110M instruments and cleanroom laboratory provide access to a wide variety of capabilities.
  • Our dedicated staff are available for training, technical expertise for process development, and analysis support.
  • A competitive fee structure, and no cost initial preliminary tests and runs, ensure all users have the ability to access our capabilities.

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