UW-Platteville purchases atomic force microscope with grant from National Science Foundation

November 22, 2010

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PLATTEVILLE - Fans continually hum, circulating air in the clean rooms on the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus, as university students experience the new atomic force microscope. Working with materials smaller than the particles in the air, students and faculty members including Dr. Yan Wu, assistant professor of engineering physics at UW-Platteville, fill the dedicated workspaces of the new microelectromechanical systems and nanotechnology minors.

The new microscope, which cost some $310,000, is leaps and bounds passed microscopes used only a decade ago, according to Wu.

"This facility and equipment will bring UW-Platteville's nanotechnology program to a very high academic level and will allow undergraduate students to use state-of-the-art equipment," said Wu. "For me, I didn't get to use such nice instruments until I was working on my post-doctorate, so this is great for our students."

Working with materials measured in nanometers - one nanometer is equal to one-billionth of a meter, students can create images and manipulate materials they work with.

Because optical microscopes cannot see beyond the visible wavelengths of light, which are between 400-700 nanometers, the atomic force microscope uses a more tactile approach in creating those images.

"The way the atomic force microscope sees things is like the way a visually impaired person sees; there is a micro-sensitive cantilever with a sharp tip, about 10 nanometers in size, that makes contact with the surface of the material. As the cantilever, similar to the width of a human hair, feels the material, a laser beam reflects off of the cantilever's surface, bounces back to a sensor and translates that information to a computer screen to view," explained Wu.

"With this technology, students will learn to image materials. If you look at a moth or butterfly wing, it looks quite normal. However, if you look at that same wing on a nano scale, you will see structures within the wing that keep the wing from getting wet. The structures are also wonderfully arranged to shed water from the wing. This is something we learned from nature but can be applied in nanotechnology."

Wu added that students will be able to measure material properties in nano scale and also manipulate or draw on the material. "This may be fun, but it's also quite useful," she said. "This teaches students how to manipulate materials and create patterns. Doing something in nano scale is quite difficult, but this is one way to create that."

Because of the sensitivity of the equipment, everything down to the building's foundation had to be considered. The clean rooms, which house a variety of instruments as well as the new microscope, were built independently from Engineering Hall's main foundation to avoid possible vibrations. Surrounding the microscope is a soundproof acoustic case to protect the cantilever from sound wave vibrations. The microscope also sits on an isolation table to reduce vibration.

Capable of viewing liquid materials, including live cells, the microscope can also take electrical measurements to map local electrical properties of materials. The soundproof casing also provides insulation to control internal temperatures within the system.

"This is an interface that works within many different physical properties and is really the high-end microscope. Across the country, this microscope is highly desired but is very expensive and not many schools can afford it," added Wu.

The microscope's purchase was made possible through a grant from the National Science Foundation with funds made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and are meant to provide investments needed to increase technological advances in science and health, thereby stimulating the economy.

About 15 students were able to use the microscope this semester for research. In an introductory class, more than 20 were allowed to produce images of materials, but more advanced classes were allowed to manipulate material.

"The experience for students here will be very beneficial. For me, atomic force microscope experience on my resume would be very desirable," said Wu. "For students, these skills are very useful in the job market or if they are thinking about pursuing a career in research and development."

For more information about the microscope, contact Wu at (608) 342-6092 or wuy@uwplatt.edu.

Written by: Ian Clark, UW-Platteville Office of Public Relations

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