posted September 20, 2011

NSF Award Funds Purchase of High-Resolution Atomic Force Microscope

Enabling users to write words in a space just a fraction of the width of a human hair isn't the purpose of the newest microscope coming to Hope College, but the capability reflects the precision and flexibility that will support multiple research programs in chemistry and physics as well as laboratory-based courses. 

Hope has received a $214,750 award from the National Science Foundation's Major Research Instrumentation Program for an atomic force microscope that will be used in scanning probe microscopy at the college.  The instrument, to be installed in November, will allow extremely magnified examination of a variety of materials, producing high-resolution, three-dimensional images detailed to the atomic level.  Beyond topography, the instrument will measure properties like magnetic force, electric force and frictional force, and will allow additional manipulation of the samples. 

The microscope doesn't resemble the small, desk-top instrument that most may have used in a biology class or seen in television or film.  Called the "Dimension Icon" and built by Bruker Nano of Santa Barbara, Calif., it's instead enclosed in a hood and rests on its own three-foot-long table designed to minimize vibrations that might spoil the results. 

It will be installed in the college's materials characterization laboratory, a new, interdisciplinary research laboratory constructed during an NSF-funded renovation of VanderWerf Hall this summer.  It will complement other instruments with a similar emphasis, including a scanning electron microscope that studies materials at a different magnification range and offers other testing capabilities. 

The grant proposal for the atomic force microscope was co-authored by Dr. Mary (Beth) Anderson, assistant professor of chemistry, and Dr. Jennifer Hampton, assistant professor of physics.  Both will be using the instrument in their on-going research projects conducted collaboratively with Hope students, as will three of their colleagues.  The instrument will also find use in upper-level courses at the college. 

"We really aimed to get a versatile instrument that could be used by multiple research groups," Hampton said. 

Anderson's research team will use the instrument to determine the chemical patterning of thin films, to study the structures of synthesized nanoparticles and nanowires, and to direct the assembly of new nanomaterials.  Hampton's group will use the instrument to study the topography and magnetism of mixed-metal films - the sorts of films used for magnetic memory storage. 

Dr. Kenneth Brown, associate professor of chemistry, and Dr. Elizabeth Sanford, associate professor of chemistry, will use the instrument to study polymer thin films.  Dr. Stephen Remillard, assistant professor of physics, will use the instrument to characterize superconductor devices. 

In writing the grant application together, Anderson and Hampton continued a connection that predated their arrival at Hope in 2010 and 2007 respectively.  They had previously worked together - specializing in scanning probe microscopy - in a research laboratory at Penn State, where Anderson was a graduate student while Hampton was a post-doctoral fellow. 

"It makes sense for us to team up," Anderson said.  "We both worked on these types of instruments in the lab there." 

They couldn't know then that they'd both one day be teaching at Hope, but when Anderson was hired in the spring of 2010 and they realized that they'd again be working together, they began to develop the vision for the new instrument. 

"Even before Beth started working here, we were hatching plans to have this happen," Hampton said.