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State-of-the-art microscope will support research, teaching

Tyler Grassman, David McComb, Heather Powell, and Stephen Niezgoda, along with an SEM

Led by a team of faculty from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), The Ohio State University has been awarded an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Major Research Instrumentation program toward the acquisition of a state-of-the-art scanning electron microscope (SEM). Combined with $340,000 in additional investment from Ohio State and the Ohio Department of Higher Education, the purchase of this instrument will support a wide range of cutting-edge research and impactful teaching efforts at the university and throughout the State of Ohio.

Tyler Grassman, an assistant professor in Ohio State’s Departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering, led the team pursuing the grant. He says the new SEM will “provide capabilities that we just don’t currently have access to.” He noted that, in addition to the core team representing multiple departments within the College of Engineering — Heather Powell (MSE and the Department of Biomedical Engineering), Stephen Niezgoda (MSE and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering), and David McComb (MSE)—another 32 researchers from across Ohio State and 13 from other Ohio Institutions expressed support for the grant during the application process.

The new SEM will help address a significant challenge that researchers face in nearly all materials-oriented disciplines: the need to establish connections between a material’s structure and its properties across a wide range of length scales.

“Discovering these important linkages can be quite difficult because it usually requires measurements made by a variety of different analytical techniques on an assortment of different, specialized instruments,” Grassman said. “Instead, this new microscope will integrate a large array of powerful imaging and analysis modes into a single, unified platform.”

“The transformational capabilities and experiments enabled by this instrument will have a major impact on materials-oriented research and education at Ohio State and across the region,” Niezgoda added.

“The new instrument is more like an in-situ laboratory than an imaging tool” said McComb, professor and founding director of the Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis (CEMAS) where the instrument will be located.  McComb added that “CEMAS has already acquired two SEMs this year, but this tool will enable researchers to probe materials properties under a range of conditions — heating, cooling, near-ambient pressure — using its diverse array of imaging and analysis capabilities.”

The instrument will enable the development of new analytical techniques and open up new areas of study, from understanding the role of crystalline defects in next-generation solar cells to investigating compositional nonuniformities resulting from thermodynamic instabilities during crystal growth. An in-situ tensile stage will also provide new capability for probing the mechanical properties of materials in the microscope which will support integrated computational materials engineering efforts in high-performance and lightweight structural alloys and composites, vastly reducing the time and expense currently required to implement emerging materials into useful products. And it will help gives researchers new and unusual tools for the investigation of advanced engineered biomaterials and their interactions and integration with native tissues such as bone and skin.

In addition to its potential as a research tool, the microscope will also serve as a powerful educational tool, providing opportunities for educators to develop new courses on cutting-edge microscopy methods for both local and remote students, as well as innovative interactive videoconference based outreach activities that touch the lives of young learners all across North America. The new modes of outreach enabled by this microscope make it possible to reach a large number of K-12 students, including populations that are typically underserved in such activities. Powell will lead the outreach efforts tied to the microscope.

“We are working with the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) to develop a materials-oriented module for their interactive videoconference program,” said Powell. “We will also collaborate with the Ohio School for the Deaf and Ohio State's American Sign Language Program to develop sister modules that are fully accessible to Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students. This is a community that is often overlooked in STEM outreach, but we believe that this program is ideally suited to change that situation.”