NSF grant funds purchase of atomic force microscope at Penn State Behrend

A $412,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will fund the purchase of an atomic force microscope at Penn State Behrend. The instrument can measure fractions of a nanometer – which is one-billionth of a meter – and will support research in materials and biological sciences.

The microscope, a Bruker Dimension Icon XR AFM, will be housed in the college’s Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center. It will be available to all faculty members in the School of Engineering and School of Science, and to researchers from other nearby colleges and companies. Students also will have access to it, once they have completed technical and safety trainings.

The instrument initially will be used to study fiber composites, polymer crystal formation and solar-cell efficiencies. The NSF grant also will fund the purchase of a triboscope, which uses electrostatic force to determine the properties of materials at small scales.

Both instruments will be installed near the college’s scanning electron microscope, creating a research hub for material characterization and imaging.

A portrait of Seyed Hamid Reza Sanei

Seyed Hamid Reza Sanei, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State Behrend, is the principal investigator for a $412,000 National Science Foundation grant that will fund the purchase of an atomic force microscope at the college.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

“The XR AFM is state-of-the-art equipment that can determine both mechanical properties and chemical identification measurements at nano and sub-nanometer scales in both hard and soft materials,” said Seyed Hamid Reza Sanei, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and the principal investigator for the project. “This will open the door to new collaborations and research endeavors while providing powerful insight into material systems that already are being studied at Penn State Behrend, including polymers, metals and composites.”

Sixteen faculty members are likely to regularly use the equipment, which was funded through NSF’s Major Research Instrumentation program. Sanei hopes to advance his study of fiber-reinforced polymer composites. Jiawei Gong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will test the efficiency of perovskite solar cells. Greg Dillon, professor of engineering, will investigate forming techniques for PEEK composites, and Alicyn Rhoades, associate professor of engineering, will study the effect of cooling rates on crystal formation.

An atomic force microscope uses a cantilever with a sharp tip to create an accurate topographical map of the nanoscale features of a material. A laser detects any deflection of the cantilever, measuring even the smallest variance in the material’s surface. That data can be used to analyze a material’s mechanical properties and surface profile, including any defects. Using the triboscope, researchers can identify the properties of a microstructure and better understand the behavior of materials at a larger scale.

To promote the instrument as a regional resource, Sanei will lead weeklong summer workshops for faculty members and students at Behrend. Faculty and students from other schools – including Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Gannon University and Mercyhurst University – also may attend, as can teachers who enroll in the college’s six-week Research Experience for Teachers program, which is open to educators in three states.

“Access to an atomic force microscope and triboscope will equip the region’s faculty with the tools to make new material discoveries,” Sanei said. “The instruments also support our Open Lab approach, creating new opportunities for collaboration and providing new and valuable resources to our industry and biomedical research partners.”