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Peter Nellist

Professor Peter Nellist
Professor of Materials

Tel: +44 1865 273656 (Room 154.30.05)
Tel: +44 1865 273777 (reception)
Fax: +44 1865 283333

Nellist group website

Summary of Interests

My research centres on the applications and development of high-resolution electron microscope techniques, in particular scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM), including atomic resolution Z-contrast imaging, electron energy-loss spectroscopy and applications of spherical aberration correctors. Our technique development work includes methods for the three-dimensional imaging and spectroscopy of materials, and methods to allow high resolution imaging and spectroscopy of radiation sensitive materials.  Always we aim to use microscopy data in a quantitative way to make measurements of the atomic and electronic structure of materials.

Research Publications


Projects Available

Developing electron microscopy methods for mapping the effects of therapeutics on cells
Prof P D Nellist (Oxford Materials), Dr S J L Flatters and Prof R A Fleck (Kings College London)

Quantitative imaging and spectroscopy in the electron microscope can now reveal the structure and chemical composition of materials at atomic resolution.  There  exists an exciting opportunity to translate these capabilities to the problem of mapping elements within cells, and in particular to determine how therapeutic treatments affect elemental distributions.  Our initial work has focused on the effects of chemotherapeutics on neuron cells to explore why chemotherapy treatments can induce pain in fingers and toes which can limit treatment.  We have shown that it is possible to image Pt (which is in several chemotherapeutics), Ca, K and Na in cells.  The aim of this work is to develop methods to push detection limits down through experiment design and advanced data processing.  The project would suit someone with a physical science background who is interested in experimental design and data processing methods, but would like an interdisciplinary project with potential benefits for the treatment of cancer and other diseases.

Also see homepages: Peter Nellist

Imaging bonding in the electron microscope
Prof P D Nellist, Dr R J Nicholls, Prof J R Yates

Electron ptychography is a newly available mode of imaging in the transmission electron microscope that is somewhat related to holography and can provide very precise measurements of the electrostatic potential in a crystal.  Recent work in Oxford has shown that it can provide a measurement of the charge transfer between boron and nitrogen in a hexagonal boron nitride monolayer. This work demonstrates the potential of ptychography for measuring the effect of bonding on wavefunctions and charge densities in crystals – a field now known as quantum crystallography.  The aim of this work is to develop this method to measure the effects of bonding in a range of different materials, such as compound nanomaterials and transition metal oxides.  It will involve developing the experimental and data processing approaches, and developing methods based on density functional theory modelling to interpret the experimental data.  Projects are available that have either a more experimental emphasis applying the method to a range of materials, or a greater emphasis on developing the theoretical modelling methods to improve how the experimental results can be interpreted.

Also see homepages: Peter Nellist Rebecca Nicholls Jonathan Yates

Exploring metal plasticity through atomic imaging of core structure
Prof P D Nellist, Prof D E J Armstrong

Almost all materials we use in our civilisation are crystals, and the things that make crystals interesting are their defects. One of the most important crystals defects are dislocations, and they are key to understanding how materials deform plastically. In some materials, for examples the tungsten used in fusion reactors, certain types of dislocations can behave in unusual ways, by having low mobility making the materials much more brittle. The explanation of this unusual behaviour probably lies in the detailed atomic arrangement at the core of the dislocation, but a full 3D characterisation of such defects has not before been possible. Here we make use of a novel “optical sectioning” procedure we have developed in our laboratory to determine the structure of dislocations at atomic resolution in 3D using electron microscopy. Using this approach to relate atomic structure to materials properties allows the rational design of alloys to improve the ductility of important structural materials.

This project would suit someone who enjoys challenging experiments but also wants to experience the excitement of seeing atoms in materials. In addition to hands on experiments, the project will involve data processing using scripting in software packages such as Matlab.

Also see homepages: David Armstrong Peter Nellist

Simulating electron microscopy data from first principles
Dr R J Nicholls / Prof P D Nellist / Prof J R Yates

Modern aberration-corrected electron microscopes combine sub-atomic resolution with the collection of chemical information.  This has been used, for example, to probe individual impurity atoms in graphene by looking at changes in the spectroscopic signal.  Interpreting the chemical information is often aided by computer simulation.  Codes which simulate spectroscopic spectra usually treat the incoming electron as a plane wave, but simulations carried out assuming plane wave illumination do not include information about the probe position and as such are limited in their ability to explain position-dependent data.  Often, the interesting thing about the chemical information is how it changes with position across a material and how that effects the macroscopic properties.  With the growing number of aberration-corrected electron microscopes it is vital to be able to carry out spectroscopic simulations which include the electron beam (i.e. the effects of convergence and position dependence).  This project would developing the theory and modifying a density-functional theory code to include the effects on the beam position.  The code would then be used to interpret experimental data from cutting-edge materials problems such as the oxidation of MoS2 single layer catalysts. 

Also see homepages: Peter Nellist Rebecca Nicholls

Super alumina: oxide nanocomposites for armour
Professor Richard Todd, Professor Peter Nellist, Dr Antonio Pellegrino

The project aims to improve the ballistic properties of alumina without significantly increasing its cost (a more expensive alumina would not compete with SiC and B4C). This will be accomplished by a combination of nanosized 2nd phase additions, grain boundary engineering and customised flaw size distributions produced using ternary additions of sacrificial carbon nanoplatelets or graphene. The outcome will shift the properties of alumina towards those of SiC whilst retaining its more versatile and cost-effective processability.

As well as ceramic processing, the research will involve a range of electron optical techniques, ranging from conventional SEM characterisation of the microstructure to the composition and structure of the different grain boundary structures using HAADF aberration corrected STEM and other advanced spectroscopy techniques available at Oxford’s David Cockayne Centre for Electron Microscopy. The properties of the nanocomposites will be understood through a range of advanced macro- and micro-mechanical property measurements and ballistic impact testing.

Subject to contract this 3-year DPhil in Materials studentship will be funded by Dstl and will provide full fees and maintenance for a student with home or EU fee status.  The stipend will be £16,777 per year.  Information on fee status can be found at

Please note that part of the student’s time on the project will be spent at Dstl's facilities and the project is restricted to UK/EU students only.

Candidates are considered in the January 2019 admissions cycle which has an application deadline of 25 January 2019. 

Any questions concerning the project can be addressed to Professor Richard Todd ( General enquiries on how to apply can be made by e mail to You must complete the standard Oxford University Application for Graduate Studies. Further information and an electronic copy of the application form can be found at

Also see homepages: Peter Nellist Richard Todd

Atomic-scale characterisation of Li battery materials
Prof P D Nellist, Prof P G Bruce

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) is now capable of imaging individual atoms in materials, and electron spectroscopy data can provide atomic-scale information about the elements present and the nature of the bonding. Oxford Materials is one of the leading departments in high-precision quantitative measurements of materials using these methods. These methods have great potential for measuring structure and local chemistry to explain the performance of Li battery materials and to guide their development. The big challenge, however, is that the materials used are very sensitive to damage due to the illuminating electron beam. The aim of this project is to make use of methods recently developed in Oxford to maximise the amount of information gained from the microscope for the minimum electron irradiation. In particular, the recently developed method of electron ptychography (somewhat related to holography) can provide very sensitive measurements of Li and O atoms with three-dimensional information available. This will allow, for example, the positions of Li and O atoms in an electrode to be determined at various stages of the charge and discharge cycle of a battery. The project is suitable for someone interested in applying state-of-the-art atomic resolution electron microscopy to an important and rapidly developing class of materials.

Also see homepages: Peter Bruce Peter Nellist

Exploring the frontiers of electron ptychography
Prof P D Nellist, Prof A I Kirkland

Electron ptychography is emerging as an important new imaging tool allowing greater image contrast of light elements, lower doses for radiation sensitive materials, the ability to correct for imperfections in the optics and the retrieval of 3D information. The technique is already being used for a range of materials applications (see other projects) and is likely to be revolution in the way we perform atomic resolution characterisation of materials. The aims of this project are to explore how far the technique can be pushed and how new measurements of materials can be made. Broadly, ptychography can be performed in two different configurations. The sample can be illuminated by a converged beam which is then scanned over the sample. Fast cameras are used to record diffraction patterns for each illuminating position, to form a 4D data set. Alternatively, a parallel illuminating beam can be tilted and a series of images recorded in a conventional TEM. Both modes will be developed as part of exploring the optimal conditions. Leading electron microscopes in the Department of Materials and at the Diamond Light Source at Harwell will be used.

Also see homepages: Angus Kirkland Peter Nellist

Also see a full listing of New projects available within the Department of Materials.