Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Fariss Samarrai:
February 16, 2011 — The University of Virginia has received a $1.5 million state-of-the-art scanning-transmission electron microscope as a gift from Altria of Richmond. The University will host a dedication ceremony Feb. 18, from 3:30 to 5 p.m., with officials from Altria and U.Va. attending, including Jennifer Hunter, vice president for corporate affairs of Altria Group, and U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan.
U.Va. engineering, chemistry and medical researchers will display and explain the microscope's capabilities in the lab after the ceremony. The microscope is located in a specially designed and equipped room in the School of Engineering and Applied Science's Wilsdorf Hall.
The funding for the new microscope is part of a $25 million commitment, announced in 2007, by Philip Morris USA, an Altria company. The partnership supports independent research in a number of key areas in which U.Va. and Altria share a common interest. The School of Medicine, McIntire School of Commerce and Curry School of Education also have received funding from this commitment.
"The employees of Altria and its companies are delighted that we could donate this electron microscope to the University of Virginia," Hunter said. "We hope this state-of-the-art equipment will help researchers at U.Va. push the limits in nanotechnology and inspire the next generation of scientists and researchers who are studying here now, and those who will attend this fine university in the future."
The new microscope is one of only 18 such instruments in universities nationwide, and one of the highest-resolution analytical microscopes in Virginia. It uses a high-energy beam of electrons to image an assortment of materials and specimens at extreme detail and resolution, allowing researchers to view the atomic structure of those samples, and gain an understanding of the properties of the materials.
The new microscope, one of the most powerful types ever built, is a Titan scanning-transmission electron microscope, built by FEI, a scientific instruments company. It can magnify samples up to approximately 2 million times.
"The gift by Altria of this Titan transmission electron microscope distinguishes U.Va. as having a unique capability in the region," Phillip A. Parrish, U.Va. associate vice president for research, said. "It will be a major benefit to U.Va. researchers in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the College of Arts and Sciences, and in the School of Medicine. The Titan's capabilities make it very useful to researchers in the physical sciences and engineering, as well as – when operated at lower power – for biomedical analysis of delicate tissues and engineered biomaterials."
Sullivan said the research capabilities provided by the microscope should also help the University attract some of America's best young scientists and engineers. "The Titan, along with our two new lab buildings for the Engineering School and the College, which will open next year, strengthen U.Va.'s position as a center for research and innovation," she said.
Virtually every modern engineered material is repeatedly analyzed under electron microscopes during development, according to James Howe, U.Va.'s Thomas Goodwin Digges Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a nationally recognized expert in the use of transmission electron microscopes.
Such materials include corrosion- and degradation-resistant metals and plastics for everything from automobiles and aircraft to buildings and bridges. Catalysts, medical devices, surgical instruments, ship hulls, computer electronics, polymers, paints, batteries, cell phones, even sports equipment, are developed in labs using electron microscopes.
"When we're making materials for everyday use, such as semiconductor nano-tubes for computers, we are working at the atomic level, and we really don't know much about those materials until we look at their atomic structure," Howe said. "We do that with transmission electron microscopes."
Materials scientists and engineers must constantly re-engineer their materials and develop and discover new ones to keep making devices stronger, smaller, faster, lighter and more efficient. They develop the structures from the ground up, so to speak, nearly atom by atom, constantly tweaking the chemical makeup to best advantage – somewhat like a chef fine-tuning a recipe.
"By understanding our materials at the atomic/molecular level, by actually being able to see the atoms and how they are arranged, we can go back to the lab and remake and reprocess the materials and test them again, and look at them again under the microscope, and keep doing that until we really understand what we have," Howe said. "It's a process of manipulation that allows us to keep making things better and better."
Likewise, medical researchers – biologists and chemists – can learn more about the behaviors of cells and drugs by looking closely at their molecular structure. Increasingly, the life sciences and physical sciences are converging to create drugs and novel devices to combat disease.
U.Va. chemists, physicists and biologists in the College of Arts and Sciences are beginning work with the new microscope, as are researchers in the Medical School and across the fields within the Engineering School.
"This microscope serves an extremely important function," said Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va.'s vice president for research. "It helps drive collaborative research, exposes students to cutting-edge techniques in nanotechnology, and enhances our ability to positively impact the economy in areas such as renewable energy generation, biomedicine and information technology."
The new microscope enhances the capabilities of the Engineering School's Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility, which Howe directs. The facility now operates two scanning-transmission electron microscopes, two scanning electron microscopes, a focused ion beam microscope, several X-ray diffractometers, and has extensive hardware and software for processing and analysis.
"The new microscope has significantly higher spatial resolution than any other instrument in the facility and can probe the chemistry of and bonding in materials at nearly the atomic level," Howe noted.
The facility is available for use by qualified U.Va. faculty, students and researchers, as well as by researchers at other universities. Facility staff members also perform materials analysis for industries. Richard White, the facility manager, provides specialized training for researchers in the preparation of samples and in the use of the microscopes.
Many of the students he has trained over the years have gone on to use their electron microscopy skills in industry, governmental and academic laboratories. Learning to use the new Titan will be a further advantage.
"We have real expertise here at U.Va. in the use of this type of microscope," White said. "The Titan will be well-utilized and no doubt some terrific materials and research, and students, will come out of this facility in the coming years."