Commercialisation of a ’gentle’ ion beam – new analysis for biolabs

Pioneering a new ion beam for secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS), our research has revolutionised analysis of organic materials. Working with commercial partners, we helped to develop new ion beam and mass spectrometer systems that have achieved combined global sales in the tens of millions of pounds.

Scientists often analyse the surface chemistry of solids using a technique called secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS). Prior to our research molecular information was only available from 1% of the surface, due to the aggressive nature of the interaction of atomic ion beams with the sample. This severely limited capabilities for molecular imaging and applications in biology and molecular materials in general.

Bucking the trend

Researchers from the Surface Analysis Research Centre developed a much gentler primary ion beam based on buckminsterfullerene (C60). In collaboration with the ion beam technology company Ionoptika Ltd, we incorporated the C60 positive ion beam into a commercial system, now protected with three patents.

Since 2008, Ionoptika has sold 70 ion beam units worth over £2 million. The product has created five new jobs in the company and established Ionoptika as a world-leading manufacturer and supplier of C60 ion beam systems.

The C60 ion beam technology was also transferred at an early stage to Ulvac-Phi, a Japanese manufacturer of SIMS instruments. With this competitive advantage in the organic surface analysis market, the company has enjoyed new instrument sales totalling several tens of millions of pounds.

C60 revolution

These novel instruments sparked immediate interest from specialist researchers and the medical community. C60 ionic bombardment resulted in new, enhanced analysis protocols adopted across many sectors including the semiconductor, chemical, biotechnology, automobile and pharmaceutical industries, in addition to governmental and academic research labs.

The C60 ion beam has triggered a paradigm shift in research laboratories and led to a new field of depth profiling for organic materials. All other manufacturers of SIMS instruments for molecular analysis have integrated C60 ion beams into their systems; consequently almost every SIMS laboratory in the world now uses C60 ion beam analysis. 

Key facts and figures:

Used worldwide

70 Ionoptika C60 ion beam systems have been sold worldwide.

Surface analysis

Up to 100% of a material’s surface can be analysed using C60 ion beams.


Secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) typically uses aggressive ion beams that damage and erode the surface of a material. The research by the Surface Analysis Research Centre focused on developing a gentler tool capable of analysing organic material.

We developed a prototype C60 primary positive ion beam system for SIMS. Our experimental evaluation of the system demonstrated:

  • High sensitivity surface analysis with sub-micron spatial resolution suitable for organic tissue analysis
  • 3D chemical imaging and unprecedented depth profiling of the successive layers of a material
  • Analysis of up to 100% of the sample
  • A gentle beam, sensitive enough to analyse single cells for the first time
  • Applicability for further methods of surface analysis, such as X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS)

Following the success of C60 ion beams for SIMS analysis, our researchers are now working in collaboration with Ionoptika on a number of alternative second-generation polyatomic ion beams, including Arn+ and (H2O)n+.

The Team


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