Center for Nanoscale Materials Director Petford-Long chats with 'Science in Parliament'

July 23, 2013

Amanda Petford-Long is Director of Argonne's Nanoscience and Technology Division as well as the lab's Center for Nanoscale Materials, a U.S. Department of Energy national user facility that provides capabilities explicitly tailored to the creation and characterization of new functional materials on the nanoscale.

A native of Britain, Petford-Long recently was interviewed by the UK's Parliamentary and Scientific Committee for the Summer 2013 issue of "Science in Parliament":

Materials scientist Amanda Petford-Long moved from Oxford to Argonne National Laboratory in 2005 and has been Director of the Center for Nanoscale Materials for 3½ years.

Petford-Long is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and maintains strong ties to the UK.

What attracted you to Argonne and your current position?

Argonne was looking to expand their electron microscopy efforts to maximise their strong research in magnetic materials. The opportunity was a great fit for me as there is a large concentration of this research at Argonne and at nearby Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. I was lucky enough also to be able to take a Professorship at Northwestern that allowed me to continue teaching, which is something I loved at Oxford. The CNM has been a perfect fit for me – I have my own research group, which works on magnetic and ferroelectric nanostructures and microscopy and I am close to many of my major industrial collaborators.

What are nanoscale materials and why study them?

At a very small, or “nano” scale, materials behave differently. The study of nanomaterials is much more than miniaturisation – we are
discovering how changes in size change a material’s properties. For instance, red stained glass actually contains gold nanoparticles that alter the wavelength of light as it passes through. Sunscreen contains nanoparticles of titanium oxide that interact with light and prevent UV reaching the skin. Research efforts over the past decade have enabled us to make single nanoparticles – current research efforts are focused on putting different nanoparticles together to make devices and turn nanoscience into nanotechnology.

What challenges will nanoscale materials help solve?

Energy is a big one for us. By reducing the distance that electrons have to move, nanomaterials will produce batteries with greater storage
capacity. It turns out that the smaller things get, the bigger instruments you have to use to look at them and the more data you produce – CNM is therefore generating truly “big data” and managing this is a huge priority. Nanoscience is also important outside the physical sciences – we are helping to develop a novel cancer treatment with nanoscale magnetic discs which attach to tumour cells and destroy them. So our scope of work at CNM is pretty vast!

What makes the CNM unique and how does it compare to other research facilities?

CNM is one of the Department of Energy’s scientific user facilities – we provide free expertise and access to our equipment to around 450
industry and academic users per year from all over the world. To gain access, users write a short peer-reviewed proposal. If
approved, there is free access providing research is published in the scientific literature. What’s unique about the CNM is that users gain not only access to equipment but also expertise of world-leading scientists who will add value and provide support to the projects.

How international are the activities? What is the extent of the interaction with the UK?

We have a very international base of users and currently have 18 projects from seven UK institutions – although we would
like to encourage more, especially from industry. The challenge is in letting the international community know about our capabilities, and that it’s free for researchers to use. Prof Greg Wurtz from King’s College London was formerly chair of our users’ executive committee and is currently working with a researcher here to set up a joint student program between Argonne and King’s College London. It would be great to see more UK researchers using the CNM as we have a concentration of
facilities and expertise that is not available in universities. Perhaps this is something the Science and Innovation network will be able to help us achieve.

How similar or different is the way science in done in the UK vs the US and how do they complement each other?

In the universities, there’s a lot of similarity. There is a realisation in both countries that it is now difficult to work in isolation: the days of a single researcher bravely fighting alone are largely behind us. A key difference is the extensive network of national labs in the US, and I believe this is an excellent way to do research. Team science and establishing a critical mass of researchers in one place allows us to work
together to solve grand challenge problems. The main commonalties in both countries are the desires to discover, learn and train the next generation of scientists.

Physics can be a difficult subject to engage the public with. How important is outreach in your work?

We take outreach very seriously and are committed to engaging with the public. Argonne has held open days where the public can come on site and see firsthand what we do – these have attracted up to 20,000 visitors in a single day! At CNM, we participate in “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” where young women are linked up with a mentor at CNM and given projects to work on – we hope to inspire young
women to consider the physical sciences as a career choice. We also engage with politicians and dignitaries, which is an important part of our work – we recently gave a tour to the Chicago’s British Consul-General and we hope to use opportunities like these to build our links outside the US.

Some of the best outreach sometimes comes from more unusual activities – CNM recently helped to solve one of Art History’s great debates – how did this come about?

We teamed up with the Art Institute in Chicago to figure out what kind of paints Picasso used – a longstanding debate amongst art historians. A tiny flake of paint was removed from one of Picasso’s pieces and given to us for analysis. We used our unique X-ray nanoprobe to look at the composition of the paint in the flake which revealed that Picasso had used ordinary house paint rather than more expensive artists’ paint and solved the mystery!