March 16, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 12

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    CIS to house shared-use facilities for University and Argonne scientists

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Three new high-tech facilities in the Center for Integrative Science will augment the University’s research in a range of projects that include the fabrication of nanostructures, studying how catalysts drive chemical reactions and probing conditions inside various parts of a cell.

    The facilities will be equipped with an array of new research instruments: a scanning electron microscope, an electron paramagnetic resonance instrument, and a time-resolved luminescence spectrometer and microscope, which will be available for use by University and Argonne scientists. Scientists at the University and Argonne already share the Enrico Fermi Institute’s electron microprobe facility, which has been operating for about one year. University scientists use the microprobe to study the chemical composition of meteorites and other materials.

    Three years ago, Thomas Rosenbaum, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and Vice President for Research and Argonne National Laboratory, and Provost Richard Saller convened a task force of faculty members in the Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences divisions to access needed resources for their research. The task force recommended establishing the new, shared facilities, and in response, Rosenbaum committed more than $1 million in funding for shared-use facilities and equipment.

    “Infrastructure demands remain one of the primary challenges for performing world-class research here at the University of Chicago,” wrote Rosenbaum and Saller in a memorandum to University scientists last year. “Sophisticated (and expensive) tools will be critical to expanding collaborations between the Biological Sciences Division and the Physical Sciences Division, as well as with Argonne.”

    The task force recommended that new facilities were necessary, especially in the Physical Sciences, which would require the kind of accounting, oversight and training support already found in the Biological Sciences. The Biological Sciences Division has operated its instruments in shared facilities for years, applying its user fees to the purchase of new equipment.

    Overseeing the SEM (scanning electron microscope) and EPR (electron paramagnetic resonance) pilot projects are Heinrich Jaeger, Director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center at the University, and Richard Jordan, Professor in Chemistry and the College. Overseeing the NanoBiology Core Facility, which will house the time-resolved luminescence instrument, is Norbert Scherer, Professor in Chemistry and the College.

    In the past, individual departments, research centers and the office of the Dean of the Physical Sciences absorbed the operational costs of its equipment. Under the new format, “we are able to get instrumentation that’s state-of-the-art, which we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise,” Jaeger said.

    The Center’s new $600,000 SEM has a resolution of 1.8 nanometers, giving it a magnification at least five times better than the aging instrument it replaces. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, approximately twice the width of a double strand of DNA. Biologists, chemists and materials scientists all work at approximately this scale when manipulating or inspecting large molecules.

    In materials science, Jaeger said, “It will allow nanofabrication at levels and precision that we can’t do right now.”

    The $270,000 EPR instrument, meanwhile, will scrutinize atoms and molecules with highly reactive unpaired electrons. Called free radicals, these types of atoms and molecules perpetrate a wide range of chemical reactions. Some cause disease by damaging cell membranes and DNA in the human body, while others create ozone and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    “It is not the first or only EPR on campus. However, it is the first general-user EPR facility, at least in my memory,” said James Norris Jr., the Robert Millikan Distinguished Service Professor in Chemistry and the College.

    Norris applies EPR to his own research in photosynthesis. Among the other specialists employing EPR: synthetic chemists who create molecules with useful new properties, and materials scientists who probe the structure and dynamics of novel compounds. “There’ll be a lot of applications for synthetic chemistry, biological chemistry and materials science from this new EPR facility,” Jordan said.

    The $208,000 time-resolved luminescence instrument will permit scientists to measure on campus for the first time the short-lived light emissions associated with a variety of biological and technological phenomena. Biologists, for example, will be able to track the lifetime of glowing dye molecules they insert into cells. “You can actually determine something about the local environment inside of a cell on the basis of whether the dye molecule has a long or short lifetime in the various environments,” Scherer explained.

    A dye molecule might retain its glow longer in a cell’s nucleus than in the surrounding fluid because of its sensitivity to calcium, for example.

    A chemist, meanwhile, might describe the characteristics of an exotic new compound by observing the flicker of fluorescent molecules that may be visible for only a billionth of a second. “There’s a huge gamut of possible measurements that can be done,” Scherer said.