Vibrational spectroscopy is a ubiquitous characterization tool in elucidating atomic structure at the bulk and nanoscale. The ability to perform high spatial resolution vibrational spectroscopy in a scanning transmission electron microscope (STEM) with electron energy-loss spectroscopy (EELS) has the potential to affect a variety of materials science problems. Since 2014, instrumentation development has pushed for incremental improvements in energy resolution, with the current best being 4.2 meV. Although this is poor in comparison to what is common in photon or neutron vibrational spectroscopies, the spatial resolution offered by vibrational EELS is equal to or better than the best of these other techniques.
The major objective of this research program is to investigate the spatial resolution of the monochromated energy-loss signal in the transmission-beam mode and correlate it to the excitation mechanism of the associated vibrational mode. The spatial variation of dipole vibrational signals in SiO2 is investigated as the electron probe is scanned across an atomically abrupt SiO2/Si interface. The Si-O bond stretch signal has a spatial resolution of 2 – 20 nm, depending on whether the interface, bulk, or surface contribution is chosen. For typical TEM specimen thicknesses, coupled surface modes contribute strongly to the spectrum. These coupled surface modes are phonon polaritons, whose intensity and spectral positions are strongly specimen geometry dependent. In a SiO2 thin-film patterned with a 2x2 array, dielectric theory simulations predict the simultaneous excitation of parallel and uncoupled surface polaritons and a very weak excitation of the orthogonal polariton.
It is demonstrated that atomic resolution can be achieved with impact vibrational signals from optical and acoustic phonons in a covalently bonded material like Si. Sub-nanometer resolution mapping of the Si-O symmetric bond stretch impact signal can also be performed in an ionic material like SiO2. The visibility of impact energy-loss signals from excitation of Brillouin zone boundary vibrational modes in hexagonal BN is seen to be a strong function of probe convergence, but not as strong a function of spectrometer collection angles. Some preliminary measurements to detect adsorbates on catalyst nanoparticle surfaces with minimum radiation damage in the aloof-beam mode are also presented.