_TECHNOLOGY Materials science

_X-Rays of Atomic Bonds

Researchers are taking a closer look at atomic bonds between materials to understand how electrons behave at interfaces, which is critical for the design of future electronic technologies.

_Steven May

May is professor and department head of Materials Science and Engineering in the College of Engineering.

Understanding electron behavior in an atomic bond is important to understanding or predicting the behavior of materials, and central to engineering a variety of devices used to process, store and transfer information. 

Materials Science and Engineering Department Head and Professor Steven May and colleagues from Drexel’s College of Engineering, along with researchers from the University of Saskatchewan and Lawrence Berkeley, Brookhaven and Argonne National Labs found a new approach for examining — with atomic-layer precision — changes in the behavior of electrons at the interfaces between two materials where they connect and interact.


To better understand the behavior of conductive and magnetic materials, researchers at Drexel are taking a closer look at their atomic bonds.

Their work gives scientists a better way of unlocking the potential of engineering materials at the atomic level.

The team’s approach for making this experimental measurement involves a technique called resonant X-ray reflectivity. It can only be conducted in large synchrotron X-ray facilities, such as those operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, that generate X-ray radiation to probe the structure of materials. By tuning the wavelength of the X-rays to excite electronic transitions specific to individual elements within a material, the team was able to measure each element’s electron contributions to their shared bond.

Understanding the function of unusual material interfaces, like those of quantum materials, could be the first step toward harnessing their properties to improve the processing power, storage and communications capabilities of electronic devices.

“Moving forward, we are excited about applying this technique to other classes of quantum materials, such as topological insulators and semimetals, to gain new insights into how interfaces alter magnetic and electronic character in those materials.”

—Steven May