UD researchers have ‘big dreams’ of seeing tiny things

Tiny Things

Joshua Hertz, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, looks through an optical microscope that will be used along with the new Zeiss Auriga Crossbeam FIB-SEM Microscope. / THE NEWS JOURNAL/SUCHAT PEDERSON

They crammed into a small laboratory at the University of Delaware like children eager for a glimpse at a new toy.

But in this case, it was dozens of excited scientists and engineers looking at a state-of-the-art imaging device able to analyze samples that are only tens of atoms thick.

“We have big dreams for this instrument and for us down the road,” said David Martin, chairman of UD’s materials science and engineering department. “This instrument really brought me to Delaware.”

In about 18 months, the Auriga CrossBeam Workstation will move to its own suite in the new Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory, being built now at the corner of Academy Street and Lovett Avenue.

It will likely be among the first of several large equipment purchases UD makes for the ISE lab. The 194,000-square-foot facility, which will cost $132 million, is the largest building project in campus history and a key part of UD’s efforts to expand its research and development capabilities.

For now, though, it sits about a block away from its future home in a small, windowless room in the basement of Spencer Laboratory. Despite residing in an unlikely place for a $2 million piece of equipment, UD researchers hope the high-powered microscope will help them unlock new discoveries right away.

UD administrators decided to make the pricey purchase because they believe its presence on campus will open new funding opportunities for faculty research. Unlike the typical light microscope you might see in a high school science class, the instrument uses electrons to provide three-dimensional images and a separate beam of Gallium ions to simultaneously cut away at materials.

Zeiss Crossbeam

Chaoying Ni (right), associate professor, shows Naresh Batta, president and CEO of Batta Environment, the Zeiss Auriga Crossbeam FIB-SEM Microscope. / THE NEWS JOURNAL/SUCHAT PEDERSON

Researchers can then use the images the device collects to simulate how the structure of the sample material is built.

Manufactured by Carl Zeiss, an international scientific equipment company, the device is the first of its kind in Delaware and one of only a handful of its type in the mid-Atlantic, according to the university. Older but comparable types of machines can be found at the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, University of Maryland, Princeton University and Penn State University, along with some private research institutions.

“Clearly, there’s a lot of passion here and a lot of enthusiasm,” said Dan McGee, president of Carl Zeiss’ nanotechnology systems division.

Auriga is adept at analyzing a wide range of materials, from polymers to metals to biological samples. Along with producing three-dimensional images that can be rotated to provide better views, the device can cleave surfaces to a uniform thickness. By slicing away mere nanometers of material, researchers can look inside a structure at the atomic level.

The machine arrived in separate pieces during the past few weeks. It was assembled and then unveiled to faculty last week.

Jenny Mueller, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in materials science and engineering, was among those trying to get a glimpse at the device. Her research revolves around diffusion between copper and aluminum. With the help of Auriga, she hopes to publish her findings in a scholarly journal soon, she said.

“I’ve been waiting for this equipment,” she said. “I couldn’t finish my research without it.”

She used to spend a whole week grinding down pieces of metal just to get a few samples ready for microscopy, and the poorer quality of those samples made her data unreliable.

The Auriga requires much less prep work.

“Comparatively speaking, it’s easy to use,” said Jim Sharp, president and CEO of Carl Zeiss. “These machines aren’t trivial to operate and prepare. It can still take weeks to analyze a sample.”

The university also plans to make the technology available to local companies, such as DuPont Co. and W.L. Gore & Associates Inc.

Contact Wade Malcolm at 324-2386 or wmalcolm@delawareonline.com.