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ODU Is First in the Country to Acquire Powerful, Four-Probe Multiview 4000 Microscope

It really is a thing of beauty, a hulking steel device with state-of-the-art switches, dials and probes.

Researchers at Old Dominion University have just started working with the Four-Probe Multiview 4000 Scanning Probe Microscope (SPM), an incredibly powerful, multifunctional instrument that can view and manipulate samples at the nanoscale. It's the only device of its kind currently in use in the United States.

ODU received funding for the $443,000 microscope from a $310,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant last summer.

The SPM arrived on campus in the summer, and was installed in a laboratory in Kaufman Hall, home of the Batten College of Engineering and Technology (BCET).

Last month, a technician from Nanonics Imaging Ltd. came to ODU from Israel to train postdoctoral research associate Jigquin Cui, and Diganta Dutta, a Ph.D. student in mechanical and aerospace engineering, to be the "crew" who will operate the microscope.

"I believe this is going to be an enabling technology for a lot of ODU researchers, working on various aspects of micro- and nanotechnology, and material science as well," said Ali Beskok, Batten Endowed Chair in Computational Engineering and director of the ODU Micro and Nanotechnology Institute.

"Looking into biological cell properties, colloidal systems and different nanoparticle surfaces, and being able to do nanolithography - this work will all be enabled."

Beskok is one of four co-PIs on the grant that won ODU the right to use the microscope.

Shizhi Qian, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and PI of the project, said aside from the power of the microscope, its real value in supporting nanotechnology research lies in its second viewing probe, located very close to the first one.

"Usually you have only one probe. Putting a second one a few nanometers apart means you can have one probe to see images and the other to apply things like electrical, thermal, and optical fields."

The other co-PIs on the grant are David Gauthier, assistant professor of biological sciences, and Julie Hao, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

A fifth researcher on the grant, Roland Cooper, has left the university.

Qian said ODU researchers are "starting to get some exciting results," but since the SPM is so complicated, they're still getting used to it.

The new piece of equipment reflects the university's commitment to nanotechnology research, which involves work at the nanoscale level, between 1 and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, while a micrometer, or micron, is one-millionth of a meter.

Until recently, ODU had facilities to fabricate and characterize micro-electrical-mechanical systems and bio-microfluidic devices, and to characterize colloidal property materials and biological samples. But prior to the arrival of the SPM, the university's technology restricted research in microscale science and engineering.

The SPM will support a broad array of multidisciplinary studies done by Qian and the other researchers. There's only one challenge: While there was grant money to acquire and install the SPM, there was no dedicated funding to maintain research with it. The machine is expensive to operate, and needs to have more funded projects to maintain its viability as a vital research tool.

"That's the challenge, because it's a very complicated system. This is the only four-probe system in the U.S.," Qian said. "We need to work very hard to use this facility to get preliminary data and then write proposals to support our research."

The ODU team has already received inquiries from researchers at the College of William and Mary, the University of Maryland and the University of South Carolina about possible collaboration, or simply renting time on the SPM.

Beskok said an instrument like the SPM could be a boon, not only to ODU's nanotechnology research, but also for the entire university.

"We're the only university in the country with this device, but you have to be able to maintain it and you have to be able to supply the expertise to give service to the university," he said.

This article was posted on: November 16, 2010

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