ASU Microscopy

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Arizona State University is known worldwide for the quality of its electron microscopes. Nathan Newman, director of the LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science at ASU, talks about microscopy at ASU.

Ted Simons: Arizona State University is known worldwide for its electron microscopes. That reputation is about to be enhanced with the addition of two more electron microscopes. We take a closer look at this new equipment and what it means for ASU and the state, in another edition of "Arizona Technology and Innovation," "Horizon's" multimedia effort that focuses on the people, ideas, businesses and technologies shaping Arizona's future. For tonight's segment, I talked to Nate Newman, director of the center for solid state research at ASU. Nate, good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Nate Newman: Thanks for having me.

Ted Simons: How did ASU get so big regarding electron microscopes?

Nate Newman: That's a great question. When ASU first started doing research, it was more or less in the '70s and so they had a few strong people who when we got major instruments they put them in centralized facilities and one the people they hired as a young faculty was John Cowley and he became, with time, the leading microscopist in United States and arguably the world and so as we developed and brought in more and more high-end equipment and they stayed in centralized facilities it produced a efficient and very effective way of having access to state-of-the-art instruments and so we have developed things that not only go with electron microscopity but a wide range of techniques that are available to the entire ASU community but as well as to and government labs and to industry.

Ted Simons: And I want to get to who else uses the microscopes in a second. Electron microscopes, what are they used for?

Nate Newman: Electron microscopes basically have a higher resolution than light. With light, you can see down to more or less as small as the width of a human hair. But with electron microscopes and with recent developments you can take that, which is about 100,000 atoms wide, you can actually probe down to a single row of atoms and more recently with what we're getting, you can probe in a single atom.

Ted Simons: So as far as the research is concerned, and again you mentioned industry uses those microscopes, how so? Uses them for what?

Nate Newman: When you're trying to solve a scientific problem, as for example, computers and chips, as they make them more and more dense, the sizes have shrunk from the human hair, of a 100,000 atoms 20 years ago, about 10 years ago it was about a 1,000 atoms. Now we're getting down to the sizes of 100 atoms so when making devices on the scale of 100 atoms and something is going right, you don't have to look but as we all know when you make something and make a complicated thing like a transistor and more importantly, a computer, you want to be able to see what went wrong. And so we can help them by not only looking at the device, we can look down and see where the individual atoms are and see what issues might have arrived. There could be a reaction; there could be species from the metal diffusing into the semi-conductor and that can degrade the device performance.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Ok, you've got the electron microscope, everyone loves it, its state-of-the-art, it's the best. Although, something new is happening at ASU. Talk to us about the new microscopes coming in.

Nate Newman: Yes what has happened is historically, when they used an electron microscope. It would be like the optical microscopes you see. You blanket the sample and use lenses and you can see a picture of the area you're looking at. More recently, they've learned how to focus the electron beam and within the last 10 years so much of electron microscopity is to scan the electron beam as long as it's small, you can go down to more or less the distance between atoms. In the last few years, one of the former ASU professors formed a company, NEON, and he corrected the images, called aboration increpted microscopes, so that the beam size is on the order of half an angstrom. That's compared to the distance between atoms, which is three angstroms. So you can actually go in and look at an individual atom by measuring some of the properties of the electrons that go through the sample, you can actually tell chemically what they are. You can see the structural properties and you can tell the chemical nature of the atoms and you can even look and see how they're bonded. Do they give up an extra electron, do they act like a metal? Do they hold on to electrons and become an insulator, or is there somewhere in between where they're called a semiconductor. We can probe the electronic and chemical and bonding structure down to the atom scale.

Ted Simons: It sounds like good for both research and for trouble shooting.

Nate Newman: Absolutely.

Ted Simons: Now, where did the funding come for this? This sounds like a hefty price.

Nate Newman: Exactly. The microscope we're getting has a retail value of about $5 million. And it came from the national science foundation. Led by a grant written by ray carpenter and formed with a team of very strong electron microscopists people we have at ASU.

Ted Simons: Correct me if I'm wrong, but these microscopes will need their own new building, correct?

Nate Newman: Exactly.

Ted Simons: Why and where is the money going to come for that?

Nate Newman: That's a very good question that we've had for a while and I think we've solved it. The microscopes require very little vibration. If it's vibrating you can't see down to the atomic layer. Same with electromagnetic interference. When you have power lines and other things going by, again that can stir the electron beam. So we spent quite a bit of time, almost a year looking for a place on campus that was very low noise electrically, vibration and etc. Once we found that, we went to the university and with great support, the university supplied the infrastructure. So the way these grants work or how it works is typically, the funding can come from outside, like NSF, and then the university provides the infrastructure. And often the departments and colleges provide new personnel. So we have a staff member who is going to be running it and a new faculty member who is an expert. So it's a team effort between ASU and between the national government and also between the faculty and really attracting the best and brightest teachers and researchers.

Ted Simons: So where does this put ASU now in this particular field?

Nate Newman: Well, we've been the leader and most of the people that really lead in the United States have been traditionally trained at ASU. It's the best university that you'll find that ASU has been the leader. Has educated the leaders and that puts us as far as I can see, we always had the depth. When the new microscopes came out, some of them ended up -- very expensive, ended up at national labs and so there's a few around. The ones we acquired because we have such expertise have some very unique and advantageous features so we think we're the best in the country. And particularly since we have a teaching mission. Not only do we do cutting edge research, which is a very good way of teaching, we're also training the future generation in this field.
Ted Simons: Last question before we let you go. What timetable are we looking at to get these things online?

Nate Newman: The microscope was delivered two weeks ago and it should be operational in -- beginning to mid February. And probably the research is going to start pushing from that time forward.

Ted Simons: All right. Very good. Nate, thank you so much for joining us, we appreciate it.

Nate Newman: I appreciate the invitation and the chance to tell you about the center for solid state science.

Nathan Newman:Director, LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science, Arizona State University;

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