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Barcelona, at the forefront of advanced microscopy

The European Union has granted 3.6 million euros to the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) to coordinate the SPM 2.0 European Training Network project. The aim of this initiative, participated in by researchers from Austria, Spain, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, is to offer specialized, multidisciplinary training in scanning probe microscopy (SPM). The intent behind this consortium, financed within the Marie Curie Skłodowska European Training Network (MSCA-ITN-ETN), is for the EU to remain at the leading edge in advanced forms of microscopy and their emerging applications in microelectronics, biology, medicine or material sciences.

The SPM 2.0 research program will focus “on the development of beyond current state of the art SPM techniques for non-destructive high spatial resolution and fast 3D tomographic chemical imaging of materials and of novel applications based on them,” say the scientists involved. The consortium will spearhead development approaches to new instruments and accessories for SPM, such as “a nanoscale infrared composition mapping SPM system able to operate in liquid media, high speed SPM system with molecular tracking capabilities or a 3D SPM tomographic system with 3D reconstruction capabilities beyond microns depth.”

​SPM 2.0 project logo. Source: Science Park of Barcelona

The European project, supported within the Horizon 2020 Framework Program, will also aim to formulate new applications for SPM and conceive solutions for industrial problems that cannot currently be solved with other forms of advanced microscopy. Among the possible applications, researchers point to “the 3D tomographic mapping of doping profiling in novel semiconductor devices, the sub-10 nm chemical mapping of polymer nanocomposites and biomembranes, the label free imaging of engineered nanomaterials in living cells and the mutation detection in single proteins.”

SPM stands out among advanced microscopy techniques

“Europe leads the scientific and technological development of Scanning Probe Microscopy in this day and age,” says Gabriel Gomila, leader of the IBEC’s Nanoscale bioelectrical characterization research group. His team recently applied electrostatic force microscopy (EFM), a version of atomic force microscopy (AFM) to analyze the internal hydration properties of endospores in conditions of high relative humidity, with a view to comprehending the high resistance presented by these airtight bacterial microcapsules.

IBEC leads this European project, in which other Spanish organizations like the Instituto de Ciencias Materiales, of the Spanish National Research council (CSIC) or the Nanoscience Cooperative Research Centre (NANOGUNE) are also taking part. The SPM 2.0 project extends beyond Spain to include other scientific members from Austria (Johannes Kepler University of Linz, Keysight Technologies Österreich GmbH, Institute of Sensor and Actuator Systems of the Vienna University of Technology), France (French National Institute of Health and Medical Research), Italy (the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia) and the United Kingdom (National Physical Laboratory and Bio Nano Centre Ltd). There are two other consortium partners; one Austrian (SCL-Sensor. Tech. Fabrication GmbH) and the other German (Infineon Technologies). 

SPM 2.0
​IBEC Headquarters. Source: Science Park of Barcelona

The 14 students of the SPM 2.0 network will also receive specialized training in technology transfer, with a view to improving their employability and strengthening ties between the public sector and private industry. Scanning Probe Microscopy, considered a prime asset for the advancement of nanotechnological products, is now a fundamental tool for research. According to IBEC sources, SPM is the technology that has evolved the most in the field of advanced microscopy, as it integrates capabilities such as 3D scanning with nanometric precision, chemical sensitivity mapping or increased sample scanning velocity. All of this bears witness to the improvements made in this type of microscopy, for which Barcelona is at the forefront, leading a European consortium to train the next generation of experts.