Hope Receives Major NSF Grant for Particle Accelerator
Posted June 26, 2003
HOLLAND -- A major grant from the National Science
Foundation (NSF) will provide Hope College with a major
resource for joint student-faculty research across multiple
departments, and puts the college in rare company that
includes national research laboratories.
The college has received $660,000 from the NSF for
a Pelletron particle accelerator and attached microprobe
facility for materials analysis. The instrument will
support research projects ranging from the analysis of
dinosaur bones, to the development of a way to find the
glucose level in blood, to testing for lake pollution.
To put the magnitude of the grant into
perspective, the NSF Physics Directorate has awarded on
average about $3 million per year for each of the past five
years as part of its Major Research Instrumentation program.
The majority of the awards go to major research
universities. The Hope College grant this year represents
more than a fifth of the average amount awarded in a typical
The award is the largest grant for scientific
equipment in Hope's history.
Only a few dozen institutions worldwide have
comparable equipment, according to project director Dr.
Graham Peaslee. It's a select group that includes Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory in California, the Tokyo
Institute of Technology and the U.S. Navy's Naval Surface
Warfare Center, among others. The only other undergraduate
schools to have had accelerators manufactured by Hope's
vendor -- the National Electrostatics Corporation, which
Peaslee said is the only U.S. manufacturer -- are Connecticut
College and Union College in New York.
"This is an affirmation of the quality of research
that goes on at Hope, and the trust that the NSF has in Hope
as an institution of major importance in the integration of
teaching and research," said Dr. James Gentile, who is the
dean for the natural sciences and the Kenneth G. Herrick
Professor of Biology at Hope.
"It is also a tremendous affirmation of the
faculty team that put this proposal together," he said. "It
demonstrates to all that we have quality individuals working
collaboratively at the interface of disciplines on cutting-
edge studies. This is what science at Hope is all about:
research teams of faculty and students using the most up-to-
date instrumentation available to answer today's scientific
questions while simultaneously preparing students to answer
those that will arise tomorrow."
The accelerator will provide beams of protons and
helium nuclei at energies of several million electron volts.
The attached microprobe is a magnetic lens system that will
focus the particle beams down to very small (10-micron)
sizes. The beams will then be directed onto the surface of
various materials for analysis. The x-rays or scattered
beam particles that result from such a bombardment can be
used to determine properties of the "target" materials. The
beam analysis techniques are non-destructive usually and
provide quantitative information about the elemental
composition and thickness of the materials studied.
The departments involved include physics,
chemistry, and the geological and environmental sciences.
All of the projects are being led by members of the Hope
faculty and conducted in collaboration with Hope students,
"Biology, chemistry and environmental science are
all mixed into one, and using what is traditionally
considered a physics instrument," he said. "This is a
multi-pronged approach that works very well at an
undergraduate institution--and the students will be doing
the work on this sophisticated instrument."
Peaslee noted that a trend internationally in
science as a field is for experts from multiple disciplines
to become involved in research questions, since each area
can contribute different skills to the process.
Undergraduate schools, he said, because of their smaller
scale have the flexibility to adapt this model in their
teaching. Hope has even designed its new science center
with multi-discipline connections in mind.
In addition to Peaslee, the faculty members who
helped craft the grant proposal are Dr. Brian Bodenbender,
associate professor of geology and environmental science;
Dr. Kenneth Brown, assistant professor of chemistry; Dr.
Paul DeYoung, professor of physics and chairperson of the
department; Dr. Mark Little, assistant professor of physics;
and Dr. Michael Pikaart, assistant professor of chemistry.
Bodenbender will study the chemical surroundings
of dinosaur bones between the time of their death and their
discovery as fossils. The process can help show whether or
not the bones had always been at one site or had been moved
Brown will use the instrument as he seeks to
develop electrochemical sensors, such as the one he proposes
to determine glucose level in blood. The work could
ultimately help researchers develop a test that doesn't
involve drawing blood.
Little is examining the qualities of new types of
thin films. He believes that the materials developed in his
lab may have potential for use in the next generation of
Peaslee will use the accelerator to test for
metals (typically pollutants) in the sediment of local
lakes. The beam analysis technique developed at Hope, he
noted, is safer, faster and more reliable than the current
acid digestion methods.
Pikaart is interested in developing a new method
to quantify the amount of protein present in his gel
electrophoresis experiments. Gel electrophoresis
experiments are widely used in biochemistry to address
protein structure and function, but reliable quantification
is impossible in most experiments to date.
In addition to the campus-based research projects,
Peaslee also anticipates that Hope will be able to provide
greater assistance to area manufacturers with materials
The accelerator, which is being custom-built for
the college, will be installed on the ground level of
VanderWerf Hall and should be ready for use by the summer of
2004. The new instrument will enable the college to retire
its 30-year-old Van de Graaff accelerator, which given its
vintage can conduct tests with only a fraction of the new
equipment's precision, according to Peaslee. He noted that
the new projects wouldn't be possible using the older