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College of Science & Engineering


“Small” often comes to mind in relation to microscopes, but a new device in the College of Science & Engineering is paving the way for big results. A new scanning electron microscope presents students conducting research with the ability to view objects up to a billionth of a meter.

Jeff Coffer, professor of chemistry, saw the need and opportunity to enhance technologies for student research at the inter-disciplinary level. In the chemistry department, Coffer and his research group work almost exclusively at the nano-level; therefore an improved microscope significantly improves data collection abilities.

Coffer's Research Team (photo by Andrea Hein)

Coffer’s Research Team

“Biologists, physicists and geologists also will use this device depending on what they are trying to analyze. It was enthusiastically endorsed and supported by multiple people who could use this resource across departments,” Coffer said.

This device impacts students at the College level, and complements previous work in imaging thin samples at low resolution with an existing scanning electron microscope, obtained in 1992. This new scanning electron microscope has a resolution of two nanometers – nearly three orders of magnitude in size smaller than previously available.

The new microscope allows direct visualization of very small objects from a millimeter down to a few nanometers, and the ability to examine the shape and elemental composition of a structure, which may be useful for geologists. Similarly, physicists may use the device to examine how light interacts with a metal particle, which requires knowledge of its shape.

“Science moves at a fast pace, and it is more efficient to look at the data quickly from one experiment, then move on to the next,” Coffer said. “These things are synergistic, and we see new opportunities for the students to add even greater detail to their research.”

A hands-on approach in research labs will continue thanks to training provided to students by an applications engineer from the Japanese manufacturer, JEOL Ltd. Coffer said students measure their own samples in the lab using the microscope. “This is a unique part of how we operate. Most universities employ a dedicated technician for such an instrument, and students don’t gain hands-on experience. It is unusual at TCU, but we are here for them to learn.”

Coffer’s students examine nanoscale semiconductors in particles that have nano- pores useful for drug delivery. Previously, the research group could not image pores, and had to use indirect and time-consuming techniques to determine the needed data. “This device has been a real ‘game changer’ allowing for more specific results.”

Jhansi Kalluri, chemistry graduate student and member of Coffer’s research group, focuses specifically on deriving porous silicon-based drug delivery carrier systems from plants such as bamboo and horsetail. Her goal is to develop an eco-friendly drug delivery carrier matrix where the drug delivery carrier derives from the stem and the drug gleans from the leaf of a single plant source. Kalluri said the field emission scanning electron microscope’s high resolution of three nanometers permits her to observe nanopores and fine details of the surface texture, which help her to understand her system.

Another research project involving the microscope examines the synthesis and manipulation of metal oxides at the nanoscale level. Mirza Hasan, chemistry graduate student, utilizes 8 percent Yttria Stablilized Zirconia in research, which can be used to produce energy in fuel cells – such as in the engine of a car using gasoline to produce energy and run a car. The fuel cells he works with use hydrogen and oxygen gas to create a similar effect, thus potentially liberating the necessity for gasoline.

Coffer believes stronger detail in research, provided through measurements from the new microscope, will allow higher student participation in a greater number of prestigious publications and conferences.

“This builds on itself – higher level data results in papers could mean greater opportunities to fund future research,” Coffer said.