STARKVILLE, Miss.--Mississippi State University's scanning electron microscopes are identifying million-year-old fossil bacteria while also helping corporations maintain millions in assets.
Researchers in a variety of fields, both at the university and in industry, say having access to very high-end scientific equipment and helpful, knowledgeable staff members are what they appreciate most about MSU's Institute for Imaging and Analytical Technologies (I2AT).
Giselle Thibaudeau Munn, the institute's director, said that while the institute is a research institute and university-level core facility, "the I2AT has an open-door policy and welcomes K-12 and other university, industry and community involvement."
Among the facility's most valued research tools is an environmental variable pressure scanning electron microscope (VP-SEM) that was installed in 2008 at the I2AT East facility located in the Clay Lyle Building on the west side of campus.
While light microscopes can only enlarge images to up to 1,000X, maximum real magnification for this VP-SEM is about 250,000X, said Amanda Lawrence, the institute's outreach coordinator and research associate.
Lawrence said the institute has another SEM that can magnify up to about 350,000X.
"Normal light microscopes are limited by the wavelength of light," she explained. "With an electron microscope, electrons are the source of the illumination and because the wavelength of an electron is a lot smaller than the wavelength of light, you can get a higher magnification and a significantly better resolution."
With magnetic coils that make a beam scan back and forth across the surface of a particular sample, an SEM is able to provide otherwise unidentifiable nano- and microscale structural details in samples as diverse as DNA, viral particles, pollen grains, archival ceramics, and phase changes in metals.
"The beauty of the VP-SEM is that it has a very large depth of field, so you can image samples as large as 1 cm (~0.5 in or about the size of the head of a grasshopper), and the entire sample will remain in focus. This is not the case when imaging with a light microscope," Lawrence said.
"This feature has helped MSU researchers and others to identify species, sub-species, and even new species of viruses, protists, and insects never seen before."
While very useful for surface imaging, an SEM also is capable of shedding light on the types and distribution of various elements in a particular sample. "We not only can tell you what elements are in your sample, but we can also see how they are distributed throughout the sample," Lawrence said.
Brenda Kirkland of MSU's geosciences department has employed the technology to examine samples from a reef and salt water pond in the Bahamas, rocks formed in an ancient lake bed in the Texas Panhandle and a layer in an ancient delta deposit.
"My students and I look at rocks that formed in association with microbes," the associate professor said. "Using this microscope, we found that organic matter and bacteria play a role in the formation of limestone, and we found fossil bacteria in rocks that are millions of years old. Some of the rocks form oil reservoirs, so our research helps oil companies understand certain types of petroleum reservoirs."
Nancy S. Losure is one of the institute's off-campus customers. She is a staff engineer in the technical support department at the Tronox LLC's production facility at Hamilton in Monroe County. Tronox is a global chemical company involved in the titanium products industry and is the largest fully integrated producer of titanium ore and titanium dioxide.
Losure said she also appreciates "having an instrument of this capability nearby and so easy to schedule and use." A former MSU assistant professor of chemical engineering, she said one of the company's research projects involves factors that affect the life of the anodes in electrolytic cells at the company's chlorate plant.
"We could have identified the material in-house by taking and analyzing scrapings, but that would not give us a map of the deposits nor an estimate of how much of the surface is covered," she said.
Since 2012, Losure said she has been using the I2AT's VP-SEM to study the deposits because it not only "gives the atomic identity of the deposits and a view of how they are distributed on the surface, but it also gives us a picture of the morphology of the deposits.
"This study is yielding clues to help us improve our feed treatment process and thereby extend the life of the anodes, which are about a $13 million asset," she added.
The institute also features a tabletop SEM that is often utilized at local schools and other outreach events. In addition to scanning electron microscopes, the facility is home to other imaging and analytical technologies, including transmission electron microscopy, confocal laser scanning microscopy, atomic force microscopy, x-ray diffraction, magnetic resonance imaging, and computed tomography. For more details on the capabilities, call 662-325-3019, see http://i2at.msstate.edu/equipment/, or visit the I2AT's East facility.
Munn extended a personal invitation to teachers in elementary and high schools, community colleges or universities as well as industry members to contact Lawrence and schedule a tour of the facility. She said the staff is "happy to be able to expose students, teachers and regional industry to state-of-the-art imaging and analytical technologies not readily available in the classroom or business sector."
Learn more about the institute by visiting www.i2at.msstate.edu or contacting Lawrence directly at 662-325-7998 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
MSU is online at www.msstate.edu.