By Daniel Dunaief
When he was in high school in Negenborn, Germany, Percy Zahl built his own computer, with some help from one of his father’s friends. Nowadays, Zahl spends considerable time improving the computer capability of an open-source community drive software project that helps researchers see structures and interactions at a subatomic level.
Recently, Zahl, who is an associate scientist in the Proximal Probe Microscopy facility at the Center for Functional Nanomaterials at Brookhaven National Laboratory, completed an extensive upgrade to software called Gnome X Scanning Microscopy, or GXSM, that adds a whole suite of new features. Zahl re-coded about half of the original 300,000 lines of code during this project.
The software, which is used to operate any kind of scanning probe microscopy system which includes atomic force microscopy and scanning tunneling microscopy, has a wide range of applications, from understanding catalysts that facilitate chemical reactions, to capturing gases, to biomedical sensors.
Oliver Monti, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a professor of physics at the University of Arizona, has been working with Zahl for over four years and has been using this system to explore atomic and molecular-scale processes that determine efficiency in plastic solar cells and other next-generation low-energy-use technologies. He said he uses the GXSM for data analysis.
Zahl “often introduces modifications and upgrades as instantaneous response to some scientific need,” which has “helped us solve specific problems efficiently,” Monti explained in an email. A former student of Monti’s needed to analyze molecule-to-molecule interactions. The two came up with an algorithm to study that and, unprompted, Zahl “introduced a version of this algorithm to his software.”
Monti said he is “very much aware of the most recent release,” which he considers a “major upgrade” and he is in the process of installing it. The new software allows the export of images in formats such as PDF and SVG, which are editable and resolution independent, Zahl explained. A PDF output of a graph has publication quality, while the images with high-resolution displays are enhanced and sharper than the previous bitmap PNG files.
The upgrade also includes making a remote control process for automating scanning and manipulation tasks “easy to use,” which is a “big plus for less experienced users,” Zahl explained. It can help automate complex or tedious repetitive jobs. As an example, Zahl said the need to scan an image that takes 10 minutes each for 20 different settings creates a laborious task. “I can either sit there and enter manually a new number every 10 minutes” or he can program a script that he made to use a list of bias voltages and hit execute in the new remote console, he explained, leaving him time to work on other projects for the next two hours and 20 minutes.
Recently, Zahl ran a spectra covering the area of a molecule, which is a task he can do reliably without worrying about user typos or errors. An additional noncontact atomic force microscopy simulation plug-in module provides researchers with a more efficient way to generate data. The new approach measures the force between atoms and molecules of the surface of a sample and a probe smaller than the diameter of an atom. Zahl has calculated and simulated forces between atoms, taking into account all atoms of a molecule and the probe atom and finds the equilibrium position of his probe. Using that three-dimensional force field, he can extract an image that he compares to the model.
Zahl spends about three quarters of his time working with users like Monti, while he dedicates the remaining time to his own projects. He appreciates the opportunity to work with many different systems and with people in a wide range of scientific disciplines.
“It’s really as diverse as it can get in this particular field of fundamental surface science — a specialty of solid state physics,” Zahl explained in an email. He has the experience to work with many different sample types while still continuing to learn “all the tricks on how to get the best images possible.”
Monti appreciates Zahl’s dedication to his work. “Data processing and analysis can be challenging,” he explained. His students often compare a trip to BNL to drinking from a firehose.
Zahl has been “essential in helping us figure out how to sift through the data and quickly focus on the most important observations,” Monti added. That appreciation extends well beyond Monti’s lab. “Whenever I meet colleagues across the world who had the pleasure to interact with [Zahl], they lavish praise on his scientific and technical expertise,” Monti said.
Bruce Koel, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Princeton University, appreciated Zahl’s contribution to his research on chemical reactions at surfaces. Zahl has “enabled us to do very high impact research,” Koel explained in an email. This work would “not have been possible without [Zahl’s] technical support and guidance about what experiments could be done.”
A resident of Rocky Point, Zahl rides the 20 miles to work as often as he can on one of several of his bicycles. An avid cyclist, Zahl has a high-end racing bike, a commuter bike and a mountain bike from those “beloved times” riding mountain trails in Switzerland.
In Chile, he reached a top speed of around 56 miles per hour descending the Osorno Volcano. In a YouTube video of his ride, he can be seen passing a car in a clearing along the windy road.
As for his work, Zahl remains committed to continuing to improve the software scientists use to enhance their visual understanding of the small surfaces of the substances they study. “I am pretty much always working on some new details or fixing this and that tiny issue,” he said. “No software is ever done. It’s evolving.”