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UNM receives funding for first electron microscope of its kind in the state

January 22, 2019 - By Kim Delker

Imagine being able to see objects that are invisible to the human eye and in fact 100,000 times smaller than a human hair. Seeing matter at this tiny level — the atomic level — has broad applications for research, ranging from drug delivery to improving the quality of water in rivers to increasing the efficiency of solar cells.

electron microscope PIs

Such research and much more is possible with a microscope known as a high-resolution scanning transmission electron microscope. The University of New Mexico has been awarded funding from the National Science Foundation to purchase a more high-tech version of this microscope that what the university currently owns, which will be the first in the state with its particular capabilities.

The grant, which began Oct. 1, is for $1.75 million, and will cover the initial purchase of the instrument, along with the first few years of operation. The researchers on the grant are from a variety of disciplines around the School of Engineering and UNM, which was key for obtaining the funding.

The UNM Board of Regents recently approved UNM’s cost share for this project — $750,000 — which comes in part from the Office of the Vice President for Research, the deans of the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the Center for Microengineered Materials (CMEM) and Center for Biomedical Engineering.

The principal investigator is Abhaya Datye, Distinguished and Regents’ Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and also the chair of the department. Co-principal investigators are Adrian Brearley, Distinguished Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences; José Cerrato, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering; Plamen Atanassov, formerly of UNM and now Chancellor’s Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at UC Irvine; and Fernando Garzon, professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of CMEM.

About 16 researchers have initially expressed interest in using the instrument from a variety of departments around UNM in three different schools: the School of Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the UNM Health Sciences Center. In addition, several local companies have expressed interest in using the microscope.

UNM has had scanning transmission electron microscope capabilities since the mid-1980s, said Datye, and that equipment has been upgraded through the years. The current instrument at UNM is nearly 20 years old and is now inadequate to perform the type of research that is currently being conducted by many researchers at UNM.

This new technology — the aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscope — has capabilities far beyond what is currently offered on campus, or anywhere in the state. These capabilities will enable new areas of research, which are just not current possible at UNM.

“You need EM to see objects at the nanoscale, or even beyond,” Datye said. “For instance, in my research with catalysts, you need to be able to see at the atomic level, to be able to design the next generation of catalysts for automotive emissions control and for meeting our needs for energy and chemicals.”

Brearley said that a key feature of the proposed scanning transmission electron microscope is its flexibility for studying a wide range of different kinds of materials. These include the ability to study delicate biological structures without damaging tissues, as well as novel materials, such as graphene, which is not possible with the current electron microscopes at UNM.

It also is a faster and more efficient machine that what is currently offered at UNM.

“A major advance is that this new microscope can acquire elemental compositions more rapidly and at the atomic scale, which is not possible on our existing instruments” Brearley said. “Data collection that takes 24 hours with our current instrument can be obtained in 10 minutes and is of higher quality.”

The Center for Integrated Technologies at Sandia National Laboratories has an aberration-corrected microscope, but Datye said the UNM piece of equipment will be different since it will be equipped with probe correctors rather than image correctors. This instrument will be more easily available to users, both inside and outside the university. Beyond that, the nearest such scanning transmission electron microscopes are located at universities in Colorado, Arizona and Texas, hundreds of miles away.

“This machine will be unique in New Mexico and will be complementary to what our national labs offer,” Datye said.

“This will be great for recruiting students as well,” said Brearley. “We can bring in both undergraduate and graduate students and train them with cutting-edge equipment that is only available at top-tier universities.”

The microscope is expected to be installed in a custom-designed electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction suite within UNM’s Physics, Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Science (PAIS) building, currently under construction, by the end of 2019. The space in the building will be controlled for vibration, cooling, and electromagnetic field requirements, and is located in a centrally-located space to encourage interdisciplinary work.

The grant, along with the UNM cost share, will cover the purchase of the advanced microscope, but a device this specialized requires a lot of maintenance and special care. Datye said maintenance on such an instrument can run over $100,000 a year, so additional funding will need to be sought in the future to maintain it, in addition to user fees generated.

In addition to serving the needs of UNM and the surrounding scientific and academic community, the grant also specifies that the new microscope will be used as a teaching tool to encourage K-12 students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), especially those in underrepresented groups.