Monday, September 26, 2011

New UAB microscope can study bone, stents, implants – and mud

Sitting in a room in the UAB School of Engineering, Robin Foley heard a knock at her door. She leaped and yelled “It’s here!” allowing herself to act more like a giddy college student than the associate professor with more than 20 years of experience she is. And for good reason.

“I’ve been waiting for months – actually we’ve been waiting for years for this microscope!” says Foley, Ph.D., Electron Optics Laboratory manager.

When she said ‘microscope’ I thought high school chemistry. Those microscopes magnify 500 times. The Scanning Electron Microscope, or SEM, magnifies 200,000 times. It can make one grain of pollen look like a golf ball.

Of course researchers at UAB will be looking at a lot more than just pollen. They will use the SEM to analyze everything from bone slices to stents to implants. Departments from biomedical to dental to medical and more will have access.

“The SEM is in Engineering and it is part of Engineering, but it is a University wide facility. It is for UAB,” says Foley. She mentions the UAB Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration under the leadership of Yogesh K. Vohra, Ph.D., UAB Department of Physics as an example. Without the backing of the CNMB – UAB may not have been able to get the SEM. And who knows how many future discoveries would have been missed if UAB still had the old technology.

The old microscope (25 years old when it retired) held a one-inch sample. This one holds six-inches. Wet materials had to be dried for the old microscope and samples were sometimes compromised. Not so for the new, environmental SEM.

“I’ve been told you can get a glob of mud and stick it in there and image it and analyze it immediately,” says J. Barry Andrews, Ph.D., Professor and Chairman of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

The SEM is so much more than its predecessor. And it is so much more than a microscope.

“It is not just for research,” says Foley. “Education, course work and outreach will be a big part of the instrument too. But for research – oh yeah! We’re excited!!”

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