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Scanning electron microscope acquisition boon to nano research

Posted by Jayme Blaschke
University News Service
May 21, 2010

Materials science research at Texas State University-San Marcos will soon add a new scanning electron microscope (SEM) to its cutting-edge facilities.

The Board of Regents of the Texas State University System has authorized the purchase of a Helios NanoLab 400 DualBeam Scanning Electron Microscope from the FEI Company. The instrument normally sells for $2.2 million, but was negotiated to a lower level by the principal investigator of the NSF grant, Nikoleta Theodoropoulou of the physics department. The acquisition will be paid for by a combination of National Science Foundation grant funds, Higher Education Assistance funds, Semiconductor Initiative Special Item appropriations, Research Development appropriations and budgeted departmental operating funds.

"This is an important tool for us. It would be almost a show stopper for many of the things we do if we were not able to acquire this instrument," said Tom Myers, director of Materials Science, Engineering and Commercialization, and associate dean of science at Texas State. "For us it is a very fundamental tool. It's hard to do nanotechnology if you can't see, manipulate and build things at that level.

"We needed a very good SEM to see things at a nano scale. This gives us that capability we did not have before," he said. "But one reason we are excited about this acquisition is that it also gives us the ability to build structures with dimensions of only a few hundred atoms. For many of the new areas of research our faculty are exploring, this is an indispensable tool."

The National Science Foundation grant marks the sixth time in three years Texas State has won the backing of the foundation for expansion of its research capabilities, and represents an unprecedented run of success.

"That is highly unusual. And the win for the SEM, about three times larger than any previous NSF equipment grant, represents the maturation of what we're trying to do here. Others have recognized that Texas State is a significant player in this arena," Myers said. "We're getting validation from multiple parties of what we're trying to do."

This equipment will be used by the materials science engineering commercialization program as well as the faculty in chemistry and biochemistry, engineering, engineering technology and physics at Texas State, and will leverage the existing capabilities of the university's materials research center, Myers said. The electron microscope has electron beam lithography and other advanced processing and characterization capabilities, including Focused Ion Beam technology, putting Texas State's microscopy capabilities on par with those of other state universities such as the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.

"Electron beam lithography is not that uncommon, but now we have a built-in focused ion beam milling. We can use that to make samples or mill structures directly," Myers said. "We can make structures in-situ. Plus we also have an ultra-high-precision stage, so when we put it all together, it gives us unique capability in the state.

"This is a top of the line instrument," he said. "The opportunities it gives us for new faculty research opportunities are tremendous… it's an investment in our future that will reward us far more than most people realize."