Magnifying Regional Resources

“African Trypanosome” by Professor David Pérez-Morga.

“African Trypanosome” by Professor David Pérez-Morga.

Credit: Image courtesy of FEI.

$662K microscope installed in Knowledge Park building

The new Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center in Knowledge Park contains 60,000 square feet of classroom, lab, office, and industry space. It also houses a regional asset—a $662,000 environmental scanning electron microscope, or ESEM.

An ESEM uses an electron beam to magnify the surface of materials by up to one million times. Researchers can use the equipment to study contamination in a sample or to better understand the structure, property, and processing characteristics of hard surfaces, including plastics, ceramics, and metals. They also can test softer, tissue-based samples, including biological materials.

“It’s the only tool in the world that can do both,” said Dr. Greg Dillon, associate director of technology transfer for the college and an associate professor of engineering. “This equipment will put us front and center on a number of nanotechnology projects.”

Samples are placed in a vacuum chamber, which researchers can manipulate to suit the characteristics of particular materials in order to conduct compositional or microstructure analysis. A material scientist, for example, can heat a surface to 1,800 degrees and determine the effects of stress or changes in chemical distribution. If a substance emits a gas or vapor, the ESEM can account for that, too.

Access to an ESEM will advance the research of faculty members and students in both the School of Engineering and the School of Science. Dr. Jason Bennett, an associate professor of chemistry, will use the instrument to test designs for an electrochemical sensor that could help detect hydrogen sulfide gas in the human body. Small amounts of the gas are produced naturally; scientists are studying how this molecule is linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Bennett’s sensor is fitted with a polymer coating. The magnification power of the ESEM and its ability to conduct elemental analysis—an X-ray reading, of sorts—will help him isolate any imperfections in the polymer.

“Is it rough? Is it smooth? Are there holes in it?” he asked. “This will give us a much better understanding of what we have, and what we still need to do.”

The purchase of the ESEM was made possible by a grant from the National Science Foundation, which often supports the installation of costly research equipment where it can serve as a regional resource. To honor that intent, the college, through its open-lab initiative, will make the ESEM available to researchers at Erie County’s other universities and to scientists at local companies, including LORD Corporation. Additional programs will be developed to support regional K-12 STEM outreach efforts.

“We will make this available to the entire northwestern Pennsylvania research community,” Dillon said. “We were clear about that in our grant application: An asset like this has even more impact when you place it at an undergraduate college that is committed to working with industry, and with students of all age levels.”