Skip to main content

CEMAS celebrates 10 years of seeing more


Whether it’s jet enginescancer cells, batteries or everyday appliances, the Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis (CEMAS) at The Ohio State University has allowed users to see more than ever before over the last decade.

CEMAS at Ohio State microscopy

Since opening in 2013, CEMAS has helped remove the traditional boundaries between disciplines in materials characterization and has enabled researchers from around the world to see samples at near-atomic resolution to characterize structures and find failures as well as unseen opportunities.

The center has also experienced tremendous growth in its electron microscope technology, full-time employees, graduate students and research expenditures. CEMAS has grown to support more than $185 million in research expenditures per year, and its capabilities have been cited over 600 times in peer-reviewed research and in formal intellectual property filings by key industrial partners.

“The past 10 years have been an amazing journey, and we now have a reputation across the world as one of the best electron microscopy facilities,” said Director David McComb, a professor of materials science and engineering who was recruited to Ohio State from Imperial College London in 2011 to design and lead CEMAS. “At CEMAS we are committed to being at the forefront of innovative microscopy to help researchers and industries seize more research opportunities to benefit society.”

David McComb, Ohio State CEMAS Department of Materials Science and Engineering
CEMAS Director David McComb

CEMAS is housed in a custom-designed building on Ohio State’s West Campus that was designed to keep environmental factors from affecting the microscopes. Every microscope performs beyond the manufacturer’s specifications, allowing users to see their samples at almost atomic scale and push the limits in advanced materials characterization. 

“We set out to create the perfect microscope facility, and we have largely gotten it right,” said McComb.

Throughout its first decade, CEMAS has enabled innovative research for some of the world’s largest companies. Rolls Royce worked with the center in 2017 to create stronger components for their jet engines. CEMAS has also helped companies find defects in potential new semiconductor device for use in extreme environments. 

In 2018, CEMAS received one of Procter & Gamble’s (P&G) North America Connect+Develop Awards, reflecting its instrumental role in advancing P&G product development. The CEMAS-P&G relationship began almost immediately after CEMAS opened its doors in 2013 with research that has spanned multiple projects analyzing and characterizing distinct classes of materials related to seven different P&G multi-billion dollar brands, including Pampers®, Pantene® and Gillette®. CEMAS also produced data to support several patent filings and revealed the advantages of focused ion beam scanning electron microscopes versus traditional methods for soft materials.

Part of CEMAS’ core mission is to increase access to electron microscopes, which can be used to solve problems in both the physical and life sciences. Since opening in 2016, the Ohio State - FEI Electron Microscopy Collaboratory Digital Theater has been giving students both in-person and remote live access to CEMAS instruments in real-time within a state-of-the-art classroom environment that meets every microscopy training need. Video wall technology provides multiple display screens and projectors, allowing simultaneous display of microscope controls, microscope outputs and lecture slides. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering hosts courses in the room to teach students advanced characterization techniques.

Metro High School physics students at CEMAS

Ohio State - FEI Electron Microscopy Collaboratory Digital Theater

“Our digital theater setup is unique,” said McComb. “It is changing the way we teach advanced materials characterization both at Ohio State and at other universities.”

After developing a facility to conduct microscopy in near-perfect conditions, CEMAS looked to further democratize access by enabling other laboratories and universities to control those microscopes from afar. Before the remote program was developed, remote microscopy had not been able to achieve the same level of detail as in-person control. CEMAS found its first remote microscopy partner in the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the remote station was commissioned in 2015. The station enables users to operate the microscope and perform experiments as if they were in the room with the equipment. After the success of the first station, CEMAS sought other partners and now has remote stations across the country, including at Case Western Reserve University, Lehigh University, North Carolina A&T University, University of Dayton and University of Nevada, Reno.

When CEMAS was first imagined, there was a vision to create a facility that spanned all disciplines of materials characterization. Electron microscopy had historically been conducted on physical science samples, such as metals and ceramics, until cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) emerged as a viable method for biomedical researchers. In 2018, CEMAS brought in two cryo-electron microscopes, enabling scientists to overcome challenges with traditional methods to see how biomolecules move and interact as they function. Cryo-EM allows researchers to view samples that have been cooled to extremely low temperatures and embedded in a thin layer of vitreous water. These microscopes have provided Ohio State researchers the opportunity to investigate the structure and function of large protein complexes, bacterial systems and viruses in their native environment at near-atomic resolution.

CEMAS’ cryo-EM capabilities have been a contributor to The OSUCCC – James Center for Cancer Engineering – Curing Cancer through Research in Engineering and Sciences (CCE-CURES) since it started in 2020. Cryo-EM has enabled researchers to analyze the makeup of frozen sample cells and other molecular structures relevant to cancer research.

CEMAS also offers outreach and workforce development programs. Launched during the COVID-19 pandemic, CEMAS’ Beyond the Scope Discussion Series features researchers and industry partners who teach different techniques and share research advanced by CEMAS instruments. The series has evolved into an in-person event that viewers around the world tune in to watch. In 2022, CEMAS started offering On The Scope – A Masterclass in Practical Scanning Electron Microscopy to further develop the microscopy workforce by providing an opportunity for industry professionals to learn how to operate scanning electron microscopes (SEM).

Looking toward CEMAS’ next 10 years, McComb aims to continuously increase knowledge and access to microscopes to find solutions for society’s most pressing problems.

“It’s important to democratize access to advanced microscopy characterization techniques,” McComb shared. “Climate change, sustainability, energy storage, societal health and other ground-breaking research can all be advanced through electron microscopy. It is important to give everyone the access to the advanced instrumentation that will enable their contribution to finding solutions to critical societal needs.”

Category: Research