A new $400,000 instrument has landed in Southern Connecticut State University’s physics lab, the latest and most advanced piece of an effort to teach students about nanotechnology—and train them to do their own hands-on research.
The variable-pressure scanning electron microscope, or SEM, works just like the microscope you used in high school—except it uses electrons, not light, and you use the computer to see the results, instead of closing one eye and squinting through a viewfinder. The resulting pictures are much higher-resolution because electrons have a shorter wavelength than light beams.
Here’s what happens: a crystal under high vacuum is heated to create electrons, which are then pulled into the machine by an electric field. The sample goes inside the main chamber, which is also under vacuum, and is bombarded by the electrons, which are accelerating down into the chamber. The electrons basically assemble into an image of the sample, which is viewed on a nearby computer screen.
Southern bought the machine with part of a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s a big step forward for the new Connecticut State University System Center for Nanotechnology, which is based at Southern Connecticut State University and supported by the grant. The center’s first classes began last summer.
The microscope produces pictures of the very smallest materials. It also has a number of sensors to enable analysis of a sample’s composition and its properties.
Christine Broadbridge, chair of the Southern physics department, said having the microscope on the campus will open up a whole new world for students studying nanotechnology, a growing field that holds promise in a wide array of applications, including lighter, stronger carbon composites, super-small computer components and targeted medical treatments.
“One of the limitations of nanotechnology is the ability to visualize,” said Broadbridge (at left in the above photo). “So this provides us with true nanomaterial visualization.”
The center has a number of other advanced microscopes and analyzing instruments. The SEM is critical to nanotechnology research. Some scientists use it to keep an eye on the new substances they’re growing, atom-by-atom. Others use it to suss out the components of a sample, or how it interacts with other elements. Toxicologists trying to understand how these ultra-tiny materials effect human, animal and plant cells use the equipment to measure what happens.
Other Connecticut schools, including Yale and UConn, have SEMs. Southern’s can perform tasks those machines can’t, Broadbridge said, making it complementary rather than duplicative. She said she expects researchers from around the state, and probably beyond, to use the microscope.
Nanotechnology is a catchall term for an incredible variety of materials and applications at what’s essentially the atomic level. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter; most “nanomaterials” fall somewhere in the realm of 1 to 100 nanometers.) Engineers are leveraging the often unique and amazing properties of these tiny materials, using nanosilver as an antimicrobial agent, for example, or carbon nanotubes to create electrical switches. These newfangled materials do come with risk, since shrinking them can also make them potentially hazardous to people, animals and the environment (read about that here, here and here).
Broadbridge and her colleagues, including professor and nano researcher Todd Schwendemann (at center in the top photo), are clearly thrilled about the new machine for what it will mean for their own work. But they’re overflowing with excitement about its impact on students.
One of the priorities in the department is getting students involved in research. That dovetails with a main goal of the nanotechnology center: training students for interesting jobs that pay well.
“A big piece of this is really workforce development,” Broadbridge said.
It’s about making science accessible to students, then teaching them practical skills, she said. With this training, they can go on to work in research labs at Connecticut companies such as United Technologies Corp.
Having this kind of program at Southern is a huge deal, Broadbridge said. It sends a message to students that they can get top-quality experiences close to home—and at state university prices.
“A lot of people feel they need to pay for a small liberal arts school” to get this exposure to research and equipment, she said. Or they might try a bigger, more research-oriented university, where class sizes are much larger than most of Southern’s sections.
Broadbridge said that over more than a decade on the campus, she’s seen students blossom because of research opportunities, even some who didn’t come into the school thinking about a science major.
Southern is also reaching out to New Haven’s students and teachers as part of a partnership with Yale that’s funded by a big grant from the National Science Foundation. The Center for Research in Interface Structures and Phenomena, known as CRISP, includes an educational component that’s largely coordinated by Broadbridge. It includes training for teachers on weekends and during vacations, as well as opportunities for students to dig into research. Southern will get about $1.8 million of the six-year, $13.9 million grant, which was announced last month.
CRISP functions as a true—and somewhat unusual—partnership between Southern and Yale, and the new SEM is another piece in that puzzle. Already, faculty and graduate students from both schools can access labs and equipment in each place, and this instrument is expected to increase that. Broadbridge, whose research specialty is the characterization of nanomaterials, does analysis for some Yale researchers, getting her own students involved in the work.
As the nano center gets up and running, Broadbridge said the university has been generous in offering space and support. The center will occupy a whole floor of the planned new science building on campus. The microscope is a talisman of what’s to come.
“It’s taken a long time to build it, but I think we’ve gotten to the point where we’re in very good shape with it,” she said.