Student-Driven Materials Science

An Interview with Chris Wetteland

Students take the lead with the Phenom scanning electron microscope (SEM) in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of Tennessee

The Phenom ProX scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a student-friendly microscope in high demand in the Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The Phenom SEM is in the undergraduate laboratory for an open-ended course. The first 3 weeks are structured for students to learn sample preparation and instrument training. The remaining weeks are open for students to devise projects. Students often strive to include the Phenom SEM as it is well-suited to investigate the structure-processing-properties materials science triangle.Dr. Kurt Sickfas at the University of Tennessee - Knoxville teaching the Materials Science lab class using the Phenom scanning electron microscope (SEM)

Prof. Kurt Sickfas explains multi-layer coatings for zirconium fuel claddings in the junior-level Materials Science class

The Phenom SEM was selected in a competitive on-site demonstration. Students and faculty chose the Phenom thanks to high quality images and superior data output. The Phenom SEM is now a “powerful recruiting tool” for the department. Because the SEM is user-friendly, students are quickly trained to use the system independently. MSE students are encouraged to do undergraduate research projects and usually include the Phenom SEM in their work.

“It’s like giving them the keys to the car”

explains Chris Wetteland who teaches the MSE lab course. “The Phenom gives students the ability to work independently in the lab.”

Materials Science lab class at UTK  using the Phenom scanning electron microscope (SEM)

Students review EDS data using the Phenom SEM

For example, seeing the pearlite structure of steel with their own hands driving the SEM has more impact than images in a classroom. This impact results in students who are interested in learning and creating their own research projects. 

Students can pursue their curiosity in materials science with the Phenom SEM. A recent example used EDS for elemental analysis. In a project using a 3D printer, the manufacturer claimed to add stainless steel in the filament. Using EDS on the Phenom ProX, students confirmed this to be true. EDS has also been used in research projects to determine carbon-rich phases in steel and to identify precipitates in aluminum-carbon systems.

A popular feature on the Phenom SEM is 3D Roughness Reconstruction. Students quickly evaluate the effect of processing on etched samples looking at surface roughness.

“The Phenom SEM has been the biggest addition to the lab”

states Chris Wetteland. “Students benefit in terms of career development,” using an instrument for imaging and analysis that is relevant to future job positions.

Using the Phenom SEM to image a multi-layer coating for zirconium fuel cladding at UTK

Phenom SEM image of multi-layer coatings with EDS line scan