Magnifying Regional Resources

‘Furnace debris’ by William Monroe.

‘Furnace debris’ by William Monroe. 

Credit: Image courtesy of FEI

$662K microscope to be installed in Knowledge Park building

The small room at the northwest corner of the new Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center was, for months, a provisional storeroom, with contractors’ tools stacked on temporary shelves.

This spring, when the building opens, adding 60,000-squarefeet of classroom, lab, office, and industry space, the room will house a far more powerful tool: 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 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 compensate 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, 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 the 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 meet 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. Additional programs will be developed to support regional K-12 STEM outreach.