In a Franklin & Marshall College lab, senior chemistry major Angus Unruh alternates between a control panel with dials and a computer mouse as fellow researcher, junior Han Le, watches the images he manipulates on dual monitors.
“We look at nanoparticles that are useful in solar panels,” Unruh said. “They absorb light, which makes them highly efficient solar cells.”
To enhance chemistry research at F&M, the National Science Foundation last year awarded the campus a $287,000 grant for a low-voltage transmission electron microscope (TEM). Since last autumn, students have stepped up their research, now able to study particles one-billionth of a meter in size.
“This is a TEM that’s designed to be robust and student-friendly so that students in classes can look at nanoparticles, look at cells on the nanometer scale, and actually image these super microscopic features,” Associate Professor of Chemistry Kate Plass said.
As she stood with the two students studying the image on the monitors, Plass said, “It’s going to be great for research, it’s going to be great for collaboration.”
As part of the grant, researchers from three other institutions – Millersville University, Ursinus College and Albright College – will have access to the Department of Chemistry’s microscope, housed in F&M’s Hackman Physical Laboratories Building.
“This is a tool that you would use in graduate school in certain areas of chemistry, physics, materials science, biology, and even pathology. Nanotechnology has transformed science and technology,” Plass said. “This is giving our students a way of learning that directly.”
In addition to enhanced research, students benefit by gaining a skill handling the instrument.
“It’s emblematic of the liberal arts experience,” Plass said. “We are taking a high-end technology and incorporating that into teaching to give students a broader understanding of the world and connections with important applications of nanotechnology aiming to serve society.”