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Ohio State’s new microscopy center to revolutionize materials research

David McComb at CEMASDavid McComb leads Ohio State new revolutionary materials research center.The Ohio State University’s new Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis (CEMAS) will be the materials characterization epicenter for business and academia worldwide.

“We believe we’ve built the best electron microscopy center in the world,” said CEMAS Director David McComb, an Ohio Research Scholar and professor of materials science and engineering. “Every microscope here is exceeding specifications. We’re now pushing the limits of the technology and finding how good the microscopes really can be.”

Armed with $28 million of equipment, including ten FEI electron microscopes optimized to perform analysis on the atomic scale, the facility offers tremendous research capabilities under one roof.

“This truly unique facility exemplifies The Ohio State University’s excellence-to-eminence trajectory,” said College of Engineering Dean David Williams. “CEMAS is one of the largest advanced materials characterization centers in the world, and now companies, researchers and students from anywhere can connect with Ohio State in ways that will facilitate groundbreaking innovation across disciplines.”

Electron microscopes are traditionally used to investigate hard materials such as metals and ceramics. However, being able to examine materials such as polymers, tissues, organic membranes, nanoparticles and gels with those same electron microscopes is a relatively new technique and lends itself to innovations in transportation, aerospace, electronics, healthcare and consumer goods, among many other fields.

Medicine, environmental science and energy materials are among a long list of fields that will yield direct benefits from CEMAS partnerships and research. Public and private partners will be able to collaborate with CEMAS in ways that will spark revolutionary advances, said McComb.

One project currently underway at CEMAS is a collaboration with Phillip Popovich, professor of neuroscience and director of the Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair at Wexner Medical Center, to better understand spinal cord damage and how to repair or alleviate it. Using a mouse model, CEMAS researchers are utilizing imaging techniques and mapping to create a 3-D reconstruction of the spinal cord, identify the key areas for analysis, and then examine those areas at even higher resolution.

Even companies that have their own electron microscopes sometimes need access to the state-of-the-art techniques CEMAS provides, along with the experts who can operate those instruments and interpret the data. The automotive and transportation sector, for instance, can benefit from CEMAS’ advanced technical expertise in their drive to improve energy efficiency with lithium-ion batteries. Understanding the interfaces and the chemistry of lithium-ion batteries on the atomic scale is key to improving performance, according to McComb.

An expert in the development and application of electron energy-loss spectroscopy, McComb was specifically recruited to Ohio State to design and lead CEMAS.

Designing the center to help each microscope meet its exact specification took as long as the actual construction. Required modifications included controlling for temperature to plus or minus 0.1 degree Celsius without creating air currents, avoiding vibrations and removing magnetic fields wherever possible.

“I was very impressed during my recent visit to CEMAS,” said Don Kania, president and CEO of FEI, the world-leading manufacturer of electron microscopes, including CEMAS’ collection of advanced devices. “It is truly a benchmark facility in North America and globally. The team at Ohio State really thought through the details when they designed it.

 FEI Tecnai F20 Scanning Transmission Electron MicroscopeThe FEI Tecnai F20 scanning transmission electron microscope is one of ten FEI electron microscopes available at the center.Located on Ohio State’s west campus in Columbus, the new 20,000 square foot center includes two electron microscopes from the Titan line—the world's most powerful, commercially-available microscopes—that are optimized to perform analysis on the atomic scale. Three additional transmission electron microscopes (TEMs), plus two dual-beam focused ion beam (FIB) instruments and three scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) are also available. The center also features two X-ray diffractometer (XRD) systems, facilities for nanoindentation and an extensive array of sample preparation facilities.

“Essentially, we are putting together the best sample preparation with extremely high point-to-point resolution of structural and chemical information, and high-speed, high-capacity data transfer and analysis,” said Rudy Buchheit, chair and professor of materials science and engineering. “This allows us to visualize, characterize and understand the make-up of materials at the atomic length of scale where interesting and important physical phenomena occur that govern material behavior.” 

Thanks to CEMAS’ direct connection to OARnet’s 100 gigabits per second network, any organization connected to OARnet’s network can purchase time and directly operate the instruments from a remote location with no perceptible delay.

The center also aims to revolutionize how scanning electron microscopy is taught to students.

“Since CEMAS’ microscope collection can be controlled from outside the room, we no longer need to teach three students at a time how to operate a microscope,” said McComb. “We can teach 25 or 30 students at a time and we can give them control of the microscope and everyone can see what’s going on.”

The network connection means students won’t need to be in the same room, or even on the Columbus campus, to have an identical instrument control and learning experiences.

A ribbon cutting event to celebrate the new center, with world-renowned microscopy scholars, dignitaries and industry leaders in attendance, will be held on September 18. It will be followed by an all-day microscopy lecture series on September 19 at Scott Labs.

The Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis was established through funding from Ohio State’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, College of Engineering, Office of Research, Office of Academic Affairs and Institute of Materials Research, and by the Ohio Development Services Agency and Ohio Board of Regents through the Ohio Third Frontier program.