Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Microscopy Reveals how Atom-High Steps Impede Oxidation of Metal Surfaces


Rust never sleeps. Whether a reference to the 1979 Neil Young album or a product designed to protect metal surfaces, the phrase invokes the idea that corrosion from oxidation—the more general chemical name for rust and other reactions of metal with oxygen—is an inevitable, persistent process. But a new study performed at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN) at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory reveals that certain features of metal surfaces can stop the process of oxidation in its tracks.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could be relevant to understanding and perhaps controlling oxidation in a wide range of materials—from catalysts to the superalloys used in jet engine turbines and the oxides in microelectronics.

Brookhaven National Laboratory

Low-energy electron microscopy images of the nickel-aluminum surface before and after oxidation. The faint lines before oxidation indicate the atom-high steps that separate flat terrace sections of the crystal surface. As oxidation begins at a point on one terrace, the oxide spreads in elongated stripes along that terrace, pushing steps out of the way and bunching them closer and closer together. Eventually the bunching of steps stops the growth of the oxide stripe and another begins to form, often at right angles, to produce a grid-like pattern.

Brookhaven National Laboratory

(see above)

The experiments were performed by a team led by Guangwen Zhou of Binghamton University, in collaboration with Peter Sutter of the CFN, a DOE Office of Science User Facility. The team used a low-energy electron microscope (LEEM) to capture changes in the surface structure of a nickel-aluminum alloy as "stripes" of metal oxide formed and grew under a range of elevated temperatures.

"These microscopes are not that frequently found in ordinary research labs; there are only a handful around the U.S.," Sutter said. "We have a pretty lively 'user community' of scientists who come to the CFN just to use this type of instrument."

The metal Zhou wanted to study, nickel-aluminum, has a characteristic common to all crystal surfaces: a stepped structure composed of a series of flat terraces at different heights. The steps between terraces are only one atom high, but they can have a significant effect on material properties. Being able to see the steps and how they change is essential to understanding how the surface will behave in different environments, in this case in response to oxygen, Sutter said.

Said Zhou, "The acquisition of this kind of knowledge is essential for gaining control over the response of a metal surface to the environment."

Scientists have known for a while that the atoms at the edges of atomic steps are especially reactive. "They are not as completely surrounded as the atoms that are part of the flat terraces, so they are more free to interact with the environment," Sutter said. "That plays a role in the material's surface chemistry."

The new study showed that the aluminum atoms involved in forming aluminum oxide stripes came exclusively from the steps, not the terraces. But the LEEM images revealed even more: The growing oxide stripes could not "climb" up or down the steps, but were confined to the flat terraces. To continue to grow, they had to push the steps away as oxygen continued to grab aluminum atoms from the edges. This forced the steps to bunch closer and closer together, eventually slowing the rate of oxide stripe growth, and then completely stopping it.

"For the first time we show that atomic steps can slow surface oxidation at the earliest stages," Zhou said.

However, as one stripe stops growing, another begins to form. "As the oxide stripes grow along the two possible directions on the crystal, which are at right angles to one another, one ends up with these patterns of blocks and lines that are reminiscent of the grid-based paintings by Mondrian," Sutter said. "They are quite beautiful…" and persistent after all.

In fact, scientists who've studied a different "cut," or facet, of the crystalline nickel-aluminum alloy have observed that steps on that surface had no effect on oxide growth. In addition, on that surface, aluminum atoms throughout the bulk of the crystal could participate in the formation of aluminum oxide, and the oxide stripes could overrun the steps, Zhou said.

Still the details and differences of the two types of surfaces could offer new ways scientists might attempt to control oxidation depending on their purpose.

"Oxides are not all bad," Sutter said. "They form as a protective layer against corrosion attack. They play important roles in chemistry, for example in catalysis. Silicon oxide is the insulating material on microelectronic circuits, where it plays a central role in directing the flow of current."

Knowing which kind of surface a material has and its effects on oxidation—or how to engineer surfaces with desired properties—might improve the design of these and other materials.

This work was supported by the DOE Office of Science.

Brookhaven National Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE's Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York on behalf of Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.

To see an electronic version of this news release with related graphics, go to:

Media contact: Justin Eure, (631) 344-2347,

Karen Walsh | newswise

Further reports about: Brookhaven Department Oxidation aluminum oxide structure surfaces

More articles from Materials Sciences:

nachricht Electron tomography technique leads to 3-D reconstructions at the nanoscale
24.05.2018 | The Optical Society

nachricht These could revolutionize the world
24.05.2018 | Vanderbilt University

All articles from Materials Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Powerful IT security for the car of the future – research alliance develops new approaches

The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.

Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...

Im Focus: Molecular switch will facilitate the development of pioneering electro-optical devices

A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.

The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...

Im Focus: LZH showcases laser material processing of tomorrow at the LASYS 2018

At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.

At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...

Im Focus: Self-illuminating pixels for a new display generation

There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?

At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...

Im Focus: Explanation for puzzling quantum oscillations has been found

So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

In focus: Climate adapted plants

25.05.2018 | Event News

Save the date: Forum European Neuroscience – 07-11 July 2018 in Berlin, Germany

02.05.2018 | Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

Latest News

In focus: Climate adapted plants

25.05.2018 | Event News

Flow probes from the 3D printer

25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering

Less is more? Gene switch for healthy aging found

25.05.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>