Sarah Haigh

2022 United Kingdom Award Finalist — Faculty

Sarah Haigh

Current Position:
Professor of Materials Characterisation; Director, Electron Microscopy Centre; Director, bp International Centre for Advanced Materials

The University of Manchester

Materials Science & Nanotechnology

Recognized for: Pioneering work on advanced electron microscopy techniques, including new, atomic-resolution imaging methods for probing the behavior of nanoparticles and 2-dimensional materials in chemical reactions in a liquid environment. Her techniques have significantly impacted the discovery of new nanomaterials for a broad range of applications, including next-generation electronic hardware, and have now been adopted by scientists worldwide.

Sarah Haigh

Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Materials Discovery, Transmission Electron Microscopy, 2-Dimensional Materials, Imaging, Functional Materials

Previous Positions: 

MEng, University of Oxford
DPhil, University of Oxford
Consultant Applications Specialist, JEOL UK Ltd, and Research Fellow, University of Oxford

Research Summary: 

Sarah Haigh, DPhil, is a pioneer in advancing transmission electron microscopy (TEM) techniques to explore various new types of nanomaterials for electronic and chemical applications. TEM is a tool to visualize the microscopic structure of materials. It sends a beam of electrons through a sample, generating highly magnified images at atomic resolution. Haigh has been leading the development of TEM for 2D materials—materials first discovered in 2004 that contain only a few atomic layers. She was the first person in the world to demonstrate side-view TEM imaging of two 2D materials stacked vertically, revealing clean and sharp interfaces that proves such stacks are suitable for electronic applications. This finding opened the door for scientists worldwide to tailor the composition and structure of these stacks for electronic components with the potential for elastic flexibility, increased speed, and lower power consumption. Haigh remains at the forefront of this research, performing microscopy that enables the realization of 2D materials in a wide range of applications including as filters to remove radioactive contaminants or to produce fresh water, and as platforms to discover new quantum physics.

Recently, Haigh achieved another milestone in extending TEM’s capability to image the earliest stage of chemical reactions in liquids. This was never possible with standard TEM because liquids are not compatible with TEM’s high vacuum working environment and previous methods needed to contain them prevented atomic resolution imaging. Haigh came up with a solution to this problem, using wells etched inside 2D materials to encapsulate and protect liquid specimens in TEM. The ultra-thin nature of the 2D materials still allows the TEM’s electron beam to pass through the liquid, and therefore preserving the high resolution. She has successfully applied this setup to visualize the time evolution of calcium carbonate synthesis, a critical process for many marine organisms and the construction industry. Her study resolved the previously intense debate over the formation mechanism of calcium carbonate nanoparticles in liquids. More importantly, it showcased the vast potential of this technique for probing at the atomic scale a wide range of physical, chemical, and biological processes occuring in liquids. In the future, this could be applied to develop new materials for converting waste streams to valuable chemicals, or to visualize how biomolecules behave in living cells without the need for freezing them in current cryogenic-TEM technology.


“I have always been intrigued by the possibility of seeing things that noone else has seen. In my independent research career this has progressed to wanting to develop and apply cutting edge characterization to “see” the solutions needed help solve the crucial scientific questions of our generation. These include how to reduce power consumption from electronics, how to convert waste to valuable chemicals, or how to clean-up polluted soil. As an electron microscopist I feel hugely fortunate that by collaborating with outstanding scientists from a wide range of disciplines I can contribute to tackling all of these problems. This is because these and many other scientific challenges all depend on atomic scale processes happening at material’s surfaces and interfaces, and which are difficult or impossible to probe by other methods. I tell my family that I am a “nano-explorer”. I believe that the nanoworld has as many secrets as the furthest galaxies or deepest oceans and that we can harness the power of nanomaterials for the benefit of people and the environment. I find nano-exploring a continued source of beauty, excitement and inspiration. It is a huge honor to be recognized by Blavatnik Awards committee and to be able to share my hobby and passion with a wider audience.”

Key Publications: 

  1. S.J. Haigh, A. Gholinia, R. Jalil, S. Romani, L. Britnell, D.C. Elias, K.S. Novoselov, L.A. Ponomarenko, A.K. Geim, R. Gorbachev. Cross-sectional Imaging of Individual Layers and Buried Interfaces of Graphene-based Heterostructures and Superlattices. Nature Materials, 2012.
  2. Weston, Y. Zou, V. Enaldiev, et al., S.J. Haigh, R. Gorbachev. Atomic Reconstruction in Twisted Bilayers of Transition Metal Dichalcogenides. Nature Nanotechnology, 2020.
  3. Y-C. Zou, L. Mogg, N. Clark, et al., S.J. Haigh. Ion Exchange in Atomically Thin Clays and Micas. Nature Materials, 2021.
  4. D.J. Kelly, N. Clark, M. Zhou, D. Gebauer, R.V. Gorbachev, S.J. Haigh. In situ TEM Imaging of Solution-phase Chemical Reactions Using 2D-heterostructure Mixing Cells. Advanced Materials, 2021.

Other Honors:

2020Guinness World Record for Finest Woven Fabric (part of the team)
2017Rosenhain Medal, Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining
2016RMS Medal for Innovation in Applied Microscopy, Royal Microscopical Society
2013Silver Medal, Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining


In the Media: 

BBC 2Inside the Factory: Pencils

Business StandardNobel Winning Technique May Help Lower Vehicle Emissions

Womanthology Becoming A Material Science Researcher to Find Things That No-one Else Has Seen Before

BBC 4Adventures in 2D: Graphene and Beyond