Understanding the Fundamentals of Surface Science

Understanding the Fundamentals of Surface Science

The terms surface and interface are often used interchangeably to describe the boundary between two dissimilar phases: solid-liquid, liquid-gas, and so on. But there is a discrete difference between the two. Chemists and physicists typically use the term interface to describe the points at which two or more different materials meet. This can be applied to gases, solids, liquids, even vacuums. The specific interface between matter and air, or between matter and vacuum is known as a surface.

Surface science is the intersectional field of study concerning both the chemical and physical interactions that occur at the uppermost nanolayers of a solid in air, or in vacuum conditions. Our ability to characterize and identify specific interfacial reaction mechanisms through pioneering surface science studies has yielded enormous breakthroughs in electrochemistry, epitaxy, geochemistry, and much more. But it was early studies into heterogeneous catalysis that gave rise to surface science as a field of study.

The Early Days of Surface Science

German physicist Gerhard Ertl is often credited for laying the foundations of modern surface science after winning the Nobel Prize for his pioneering research into chemical processes that occur on solid surfaces. In 1974, he made the first major step towards a quantitative understanding of heterogeneous catalysis by describing the deposition of hydrogen on palladium. He routinely leveraged the most cutting-edge instrumentation available to explore in detail the molecular mechanisms of surface reactions such as ammonia on iron and carbon monoxide on platinum. The latter paved the way for catalytic conversion of car exhaust fumes.

Modern Applications of Surface Science

Owing to the diversity and sophistication of surface science techniques available today, combined with the truly interdisciplinary approach to most areas of study, there is no clear division between applied and fundamental surface science applications. Some of the most prevalent studies among these include:

  • Catalysis, both chemisorption, and physisorption;
  • Electrochemistry, particularly into the molecular mechanisms at electrode interfaces;
  • Geochemical phenomena such as soil pollution by xenobiotics;
  • Materials development;
  • Semiconductor processing;
  • Tribology.

Studying Surface Science with UHV Design

Surface science is intrinsically linked to the vacuum environment. Without a high-purity and highly stable sample chamber, you cannot be confident in your results. Likewise, it is often impossible to conduct necessary experimentation without manipulating samples/substrates in situ. This calls for complex feedthroughs and mechanisms that take up space within the chamber and may compromise the vacuum environment.

At UHV Design, we specialize in creating precision stages suitable for various surface analytical environments. Our systems are compact and high stability, with a modular design as standard to ensure that the end-product suits the individual application. Our two leading lines are the XL-T Series and the XL-R Series. Each one is an innovative sample stage with ultra compact swept volume and continuous azimuthal rotation capabilities. If you would like to speak with a member of the team about using one of our stages in your surface science research, why not contact a member of the team today?