Group name Atomic Scale Materials Characterisation

Group leader Julie Cairney

Location Australian Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis, University of Sydney

Further information


Professor Julie Cairney.
Professor Julie Cairney.
Professor Cairney's group.
Professor Cairney's group.
Professor Julie Cairney at work on the atom probe microscope.
Professor Julie Cairney at work on the atom probe microscope.
Transmission Kikuchi orientation map of surface-treated stainless steel. Image taken by Dr Wen Hao Kan.
Transmission Kikuchi orientation map of surface-treated stainless steel. Image taken by Dr Wen Hao Kan.
Nanophases in a carbonate region of a chondrite meteorite (QUE 93005). Image taken by Dr Ingrid McCarroll as part of a collaboration with Dr Luke Daly from the University of Glasgow.
Nanophases in a carbonate region of a chondrite meteorite (QUE 93005). Image taken by Dr Ingrid McCarroll as part of a collaboration with Dr Luke Daly from the University of Glasgow.

Microscopy provides an insight into the three-dimensional structure of materials at the atomic scale. Such insights are vital to metallurgy, to understand the behavior of structural steels, the effects of corrosion, and alloys, for example, as well as other types of functional materials, geological materials, and biominerals.

Julie Cairney has spent her career using advanced microscopy to study the three-dimensional structure of materials like these at the atomic scale. She leads the Australian Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis (ACMM) at the University of Sydney and Microscopy Australia, a national project providing open access to microscopy facilities across the country.

Growing up in a mining town in the outback of Australia, Cairney has always had a keen interest in science and engineering. After studying materials science and engineering at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), followed by a PhD in physical metallurgy, she spent time as a researcher at the University of Birmingham in the UK, and the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research in Stuttgart, Germany.

She also serves on the advisory board of the journal Ultramicroscopy, as Vice President of the International Field Emission Society, and was selected as one the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s 50 Young Scientists of 2016.

Julie Cairney talked to Materials Today about her current research and future plans.

What is your position?

I’m the Director of a facility called the Australian Centre for Microscopy and Microanalysis (ACMM), which is a central research center at the University of Sydney housing an open access national microscopy facility. Our lab is among the best equipped of its kind in the world, with a wide array of microscopy infrastructure, ranging from high resolution electron microscopes, x-ray microscopes and atom probes, to cryo- and super-resolution systems. Unlike many central microscopy labs, we support users across both materials and life sciences.

In addition to the incredible technical staff who support the instruments, the ACMM is home to several research groups (over 100 people in total). These researchers utilize our microscopy infrastructure intensively and some of them also work on the development of microscopy techniques.

I also serve as CEO of Microscopy Australia, a national infrastructure project that provides open-access microscopy infrastructure across Australia, which is headquartered at the ACMM.

How long has your group been running?

My research group has been running for 12 years, since I started in a continuing academic role at the University of Sydney in 2007. I was lucky enough to be awarded a few grants early in my career that allowed me to set up a small research group and remain productive when I took maternity leave in 2009 and 2011.

How many staff currently makes up your group?

My specific research group consists of roughly 10 researchers, mostly postdoctoral research fellows and PhD students.

What are the major themes of research in your group?

My group specializes in using advanced microscopy to study the three-dimensional structure of materials at the atomic scale. My background is metallurgy, and I still work in this field, but these days my projects cover materials as diverse as steels, corrosion products, functional materials, geological materials, and biominerals. I supervise a mixture of industry-sponsored and fundamental research.

I am involved with developing new microscopy technologies, including computational approaches to the analysis of three-dimensional maps of atoms obtained by atom probe microscopy and contributions to the development of a new method for crystal orientation mapping by transmission Kikuchi diffraction. These methods have been adopted in microscopy labs around the world and allowed me to make an impact across a range of research fields.

For example, I have worked with BlueScope Steel to design a new range of strip cast steels that are strengthened by the atomic-scale clustering of atoms, and with Weir Minerals Australia to produce tougher, wear resistant alloys for components that will reduce the downtime in Australian mines. Both of these products have reached commercial production trials. Recently, I worked with geoscientists to provide information to more accurately date zircon, i.e. determine the age of rocks. In 2015, I founded a successful start up company that sells microscopy components developed in my lab, and provides essential components to over 25 laboratories worldwide.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

I grew up in a mining town and I always loved science and maths. I gravitated towards engineering because, as I saw it, it was a way of using science to solve real-world problems. The subjects offered by a degree in metallurgical engineering seemed interesting and job prospects good. A scholarship from a local mining company was a big incentive. I did not come from a wealthy family and the financial support was very welcome.

In my final year, I had the opportunity to use electron microscopes for my honors projects and I was hooked immediately. I loved research right from the start. I couldn’t believe that there is an occupation that is all about using creativity to solve puzzles! When I realized that a PhD was a thing (which was only in my final year) I signed up without hesitating.

What facilities and equipment does your lab have?

My research relies on advanced instrumentation, which is expensive I’m not gonna lie. I’m incredibly lucky to have an extremely well equipped lab and to work in an environment where my lab, institution, and Australia as a whole, provide good access to support for research infrastructure. Not only that, but they recognize that the stainless steel alone is not enough to support world class research; our infrastructure programs provide salaries for technical support staff and give opportunities for their professional development. These people are absolutely essential to what I do.

Do you have a favorite piece of kit or equipment?

I love all the microscopes, but I have a soft spot for atom probe tomography, a technique that provides beautiful, three-dimensional images showing the precise position within matter. Although not all of my group use atom probe, I’m probably best known for our atom probe work.

What do you think has been your most influential work to date?

I’m most excited about the work that I’m doing right now! I have a project underway to connect a range of different microscopes in our facility via vacuum and cryogenic transfers and stages. The parts that we have already completed are allowing us to carry out atom probe on samples that have been charged with deuterium, a type of hydrogen. The upshot of this is that we can now measure the atomic-scale distribution of hydrogen within materials, something that is almost impossible to achieve by using conventional microscopy techniques. This is necessary for a range of different and important research areas relating to hydrogen storage, fuel cells, corrosion, and the embrittlement of alloys. We have proven that the system works in steels, and I am very confident that this method to visualize the atomic-scale distribution of hydrogen will be used throughout the world in the future.

What is the key to running a successful group?

Autonomy and independence. I believe that researchers need to own their own project, rather than being told what to do. I try to provide guidance and support, but not to dictate.

How do you plan to develop your group in the future?

I’m conscious that I don’t have the time to provide my group with as much support with writing (both papers and grant applications) and data analysis as I would like. I am going to try hiring a research manager to support my team with these activities. I also find it a challenge to identify the right balance of projects. Too many research areas mean that I lack the required expertise to do some well. I plan to try to focus a little more!

Key publications

  1. B. Gault, M.P. Moody, J.M. Cairney, S.P. Ringer. Atom Probe Microscopy. Springer, 2012.
  2. C. Yan, J. Huang, K. Sun, S. Johnston, Y. Zhang, H. Sun, A. Pu, M. He, F. Liu, K. Eder, L. Yang, J.M. Cairney et al. Cu2ZnSnS4 solar cells with over 10% power conversion efficiency enabled by heterojunction heat treatment. Nature Energy 3 (2018) 764.
  3. J.M. Cairney. Atoms on the move—finding the hydrogen. Science 355, (2017) 1128-1129.
  4. G. Sneddon, P. Trimby, J.M. Cairney. Transmission Kikuchi diffraction in a scanning electron microscope: A review. Materials Sci. & Eng. Reports 110 (2016) 1-12.
  5. A. La Fontaine, A. Zavgorodniy, H. Liu, R. Zheng, M. Swain, J.M. Cairney. Atomic-scale compositional mapping reveals Mg-rich amorphous calcium phosphate in human dental enamel. Science Advances 2 (2016) e1601145.
  6. S. Piazolo, A. La Fontaine, P. Trimby, L. Yang, S. Harley, R. Armstrong, J.M. Cairney. Deformation-induced trace element redistribution in zircon revealed using atom probe tomography. Nature Communications 7 (2016) 10490.
  7. P. Felfer, P. Benndorf, A. Masters, T. Maschmeyer and J. M. Cairney. Revealing the Distribution of the Atoms within Individual Bimetallic Catalyst Nanoparticles. Angewante Chemie 42 (2014) 11372-11375.
  8. P. Trimby, Y. Cao, Z. Chen, K. Hemker, X. Liao, P. Rottmann, S. Samudrala, J. Sun, J. Wang, J. Wheeler, J.M. Cairney. Characterizing deformed ultrafine-grained and nanocrystalline materials using transmission Kikuchi diffraction in a scanning electron microscope. Acta Materialia 62 (2014) 69–80.
  9. V. Araullo-Peters, B. Gault, F. De Geuser, A. Deschamps, C. Sigli, J.M. Cairney. Microstructural evolution during ageing of Al–Cu–Li–x alloys. Acta Materialia 66 (2014) 199-208.
  10. Y. Xiang, V. Chitry, P.V. Liddicoat, P. Felfer, J.M. Cairney et al. Long-Chain Terminal Alcohols through Catalytic CO Hydrogenation. Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) 135, (2013) 7114-7117.
  11. F. Tang, D.S. Gianola, M.P. Moody, and J.M. Cairney. Observations of grain boundary impurities in nanocrystalline Al and their influence on microstructural stability and mechanical behavior. Acta Materialia 60 (2012) 1038-1047.