A physics professor has pushed Towson State University's liberal arts campus into the tiny world of nano-technology by building two powerful microscopes and opening them for research by off-campus scientists and manufacturers.
The school's new nano-technology facility consists of a scanning tunneling microscope, an atomic force microscope and their builder -- Dr. David Schaefer, 32, who brought his expertise in the field to TSU a year ago.
Both microscopes are capable of producing images of structures and surfaces on scales measured in nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter -- so tiny it would take 100,000 to span the width of a human hair.
TSU's new center is a guppy in waters soon to be filled by bigger fish. In January, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland College Park will launch multimillion-dollar Material Research Science and Engineering centers, two of 13 funded nationally by the National Science Foundation.
They will do fundamental research on nano-scale materials and collaborate with small start-up companies, or the research divisions of larger ones, to develop and commercialize new materials and technologies.
TSU's facility was established with $140,000 in start-up grants from the U.S. Office of Naval Research and Towson State. Its presence at Towson's liberal arts campus does not signal a change in TSU's mission, said university President Hoke L. Smith.
"It's simply calling attention to a mission that was there all along, but in this case in a field on the cutting edge," he said. "We've had outstanding scholars in a number of different fields, and we've tried to support them in both their scholarship and the outreach of that scholarship to whatever community is relevant."
Towson's facility has been built around Schaefer, who came to TSU from Purdue University and the Navy. "If he is successful in attracting support for this, we may find we have an expansion in this area in two or three years," Smith said.
Schaefer said he believes that, if it can attract research to TSU, the nano-technology facility will provide Towson faculty and students with research experience. Corporate collaborations also may bring donations of money and equipment, and open doors for students to postgraduate employment.
The demand for high-resolution, nano-scale microscopy is growing and spreading into more fields, Schaefer said.
Stephen E. Brucker, president of Communications Systems Technology Inc. in Columbia, said, "Things are getting so small [in electronics manufacturing] that we're actually starting to make some things that we need instruments to inspect. And no matter what instruments we give them, it's not enough."
The instruments at a nano-technology center like TSU's could help manufacturers find the answers.
The atomic force microscope is a deceptively simple arrangement of lasers, metal, silicon and sensors mounted on a waist-high lab table.
The second instrument, a scanning tunneling microscope, looks much the same. It was invented by IBM scientists in 1981 and refined to a point where it can reveal individual atoms to the human eye.
Both microscopes work by passing an extremely tiny stylus -- tungsten or platinum wire just one atom wide at its tip -- over a surface, a bit like an old-fashioned phonograph needle. A computer records and displays the interaction between the tip and the material being scanned.
The delicate point usually does not actually touch the material, although it can be used to actually push, pick up, move and deposit individual atoms.
With these microscopes, "we can actually see the atoms, and we can move them around," said Schaefer. The instruments "become not only our eyes, but also our hands."
The scanning tunneling microscope measures tiny changes in an electrical current in the stylus as it gets closer to, or farther away from, irregularities in the material.
The atomic force microscope measures the electrostatic interaction between atoms at the tip of the stylus and atoms in the scanned material. It is generally more versatile, in part because it can scan materials that do not conduct electricity.
The resulting images can be enhanced and manipulated with sophisticated computer programs, producing a clearer understanding of the material's structure.
Although scanning tunneling microscopes and atomic force microscopes are now available commercially, Schaefer said, high-performance models are very expensive. Also, "if you want to do something a little different than they were designed for, you're stuck."
It's cheaper if you build them yourself, he said, and you can make them more versatile.
So that's what he did.
The result isn't fancy, finished with duct tape and hand lettering. "It's maybe not as user friendly" as commercial models, Schaefer acknowledges, and it "hasn't got all the bells and whistles. But it will image just as well, and it can be modified."
Schaefer grew up in Dublin, in Harford County, and received his bachelor's degree in physics at TSU in 1986. He received his doctorate in physics at Purdue in 1993.
His research includes investigations of the small-scale mechanical properties of materials such as gold films, in the hope that their structure can be modified and made stronger.
Pub Date: 10/31/96