Five fields where electron diffraction will make a difference

We have compiled a list of five important fields where electron diffraction will make a difference, described in the words of distinguished experts who have lent us their kind and informative support.
Tue, 24.11.2020

Electron diffraction is indeed a game-changer for many fields of research and diverse industries. Needless to say, the emergence of the dedicated electron diffractometer on the market will disrupt the status quo and increase awareness about the huge potential of nano-crystallography via electron diffraction.  We have compiled a list of five fields where electron diffraction will make a difference; you will find them below, described in the words of distinguished experts from the respective areas, who have lent us their kind and informative support.

Crystalline polymorphism can influence the properties of various commercial goods and therefore be disclosed as patent1. Polymorphism does not only apply to the whole bulk powder of a substances as such but also yields heterogeneity between individual crystallites2. It might happen with nearly any parameter change during production. Latter property is difficult and nearly impossible to assess by state-of-the-art techniques. Yet electron diffraction paves the way to characterise polymorphism on the level of singular particles. Grain by grain – this could mean new patent strategies for the commodity products of future.” Julian Wennmacher, PhD in Electron Diffraction, ETH Zurich

1. Academia 

Academia is at the forefront of innovation and research, so it comes naturally that an improved approach to nano-instrumentation with a dedicated electron diffractometer would only drive more scientific progress.

“The continued development and application of electron diffraction is particularly important, because it enables structural analysis of individual crystals that are too small to be measured by X-ray diffraction. This makes the further development of electron diffraction and the general availability to the scientific community highly important. The paper in Angewandte Chemie Int. Ed. (30 (2018) 16551), authored by Tim Grüne and Julian Wennmacher and co-authored by Gustavo Santiso-Quinones, Gunther Steinfeld and J. A. van Bokhoven, highlights the enormous potential that electron diffraction has in materials characterization and is exemplary for the interest in electron diffraction3.” Professor of Heterogeneous Catalysis, Switzerland

Electron diffraction is gaining worldwide attention in the crystallography community: every important scientific congress in the last two years has featured ED among its topics.

2. Pharmaceutical industry

Recent research tends to illustrate more and more the high potential of electron diffraction in pharmaceutical applications, given that it can support drug discovery and development at a pace that is now faster than ever. 

“The development of such tools (i.e. a dedicated electron diffractometer) for the implementation of analytical pharmaceutical labs is really promising and would open up new perspectives. In summary, such breakthrough technologies and their development, to be implemented routinely in the analytical labs, reflect the transitions necessary for further use within the analytical community. These initiatives are immediately applicable to pharmaceutical efforts and have the potential to improve the understanding of active pharmaceutical ingredients – both at the drug substance level and the drug product level.” Leading Scientist in Pharmaceutical R&D, Switzerland

Considering our present uneasy pandemic situation, this certainly comes as great news.

3. Petrochemical industry

Catalysts find numerous applications in fuel cells, the production of renewable hydrogen or syngas, the conversion of biomass to fuels, the depolymerization of lignin and the catalytic transformation of CO2 to fuels, to name a few.

“We find the “Development of an Electron Diffractometer” project proposed by the company ELDICO Scientific to be an interesting opportunity for the sector as a whole, as it will bring to the market a device for detailed 3D structure analysis on compounds presently impossible, such as nano-sized zeolites. This will have a direct economic impact on the industry since it will help us develop new catalytic materials.” Senior Researcher, X-ray diffraction, Netherlands

Electron diffraction can greatly impact the energy sector, especially in the quest for an innovative approach to help build a sustainable energy future.

4. Minerals & mining

Every segment of society uses minerals and mineral resources every day. Since ancient civilization, humans have applied mining techniques when mining rocks and minerals on the earth’s surface. Minerals are not only an important natural resource in human nutrition (iron, manganese, selenium, calcium, etc.), but also in fertilizers (phosphor) and construction and as ore for metals.

Dr. Enrico Mugnaioli et al.: “Cowlesite is to date the only natural zeolite whose structure could not be determined by X-ray methods. In this paper, we present the ab initio structure determination of this mineral obtained by three-dimensional (3D) electron diffraction data collected from single-crystal domains of a few hundreds of nanometers. When cowlesite comes into contact with a transmission electron microscope vacuum, a phase transition to a conventional 3D zeolite framework occurs in few seconds. The original cowlesite structure could be preserved only by adopting a cryo-plunging sample preparation protocol usually employed for macromolecular samples. Such a protocol allows the investigation by 3D electron diffraction of very hydrated and very beam-sensitive inorganic materials which were previously considered intractable by transmission electron microscopy crystallographic methods.”

Zeolites, because of their porous structure, find a wide range of applications in catalysis, ion exchange, molecular sieving, adsorption, water purification, agronomy, biomass conversion and construction. It is possible to build virtually infinite kinds of zeolitic structure architectures, with finely tuned pore sizes and connectivity.

5. Life science

Data nowadays is still collected by the continuous rotation of the crystal, already promoted by Arndt and Wonacott in 1977 and considered the standard in protein crystallography ever since. Although crystal alignment with the rotation axis has not always been straightforward and rotation stages were typically not accurate enough, these shortcomings have now been overcome and the continuous three-dimensional data collection from protein nanocrystals is now being established as a method in protein electron crystallography, further motivated by the fact that crystallization trials that are evidently unsuccessful often do contain nanocrystals.

As Nannenga et al. state, “Electron diffraction is a powerful tool for studying the atomic structures of materials and biological samples. For biological samples that are dose sensitive and should be studied in cryogenic conditions with low dose methods, electron diffraction has traditionally been restricted to the use of two-dimensional (2D) crystals. It was not until 2013 that electron diffraction was used for the first time for determining the structure of a protein from 3D crystals by a newly established method called MicroED. This method has since been used to solve a number of macromolecular structures at cryogenic temperatures and with an extremely low electron dose.”

Electron crystallography is becoming the preferred method for the structure determination of macromolecules from nano-crystalline samples.


[1] Haleblian, J. & McCrone, W. Pharmaceutical applications of polymorphism. Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 58, 911 (1969).

[2] Broadhurst, E. T., Xu, H., Clabbers, M. T. B., Lightowler, M., Nudelman, F., Zou, X. & Parsons, S. Polymorph evolution during crystal growth studied by 3D electron diffraction. IUCrJ 7, 5 (2020).

[3] T. Gruene, J. T. C. Wennmacher, C. Zaubitzer, J. J. Holstein, J. Heidler, A. Fecteau-Lefebvre, S. De Carlo, E. Müller, K. N. Goldie, I. Regeni, T. Li, G. Santiso-Quinones, G. Steinfeld, S. Handschin, E. van Genderen, J. A. van Bokhoven, G. H. Clever, R. Pantelic, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2018, 57, 16313.

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