NSF grant to fund ‘revolutionary’ electron microscope

A first-of-its-kind electron microscope, which will allow materials to be studied in their natural environments using an electron beam focused down to a subatomic spot, is coming to Cornell.

The National Science Foundation has given Cornell $2.7 million to acquire a cryogenic, aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscope. The funds will be supplemented by matching grants. The NSF grant was awarded to an interdisciplinary team led by Lena F. Kourkoutis, assistant professor of applied and engineering physics and a Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow.

The state-of-the-art microscope has the potential to revolutionize research in biology, physics and materials science and will be available as part of the Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR) suite of shared facilities.

Cryo-electron microscopy is used primarily in biological sciences as a way of preserving the structures of cells or proteins by flash-freezing them to liquid nitrogen temperatures (about -320 Fahrenheit). The structures are then imaged with electron beams.

For inorganic materials research, in which cryo-electron microscopy is gaining momentum, the requirements are different, Kourkoutis said. “The microscope will allow us to study the structure, bonding and chemistry of materials at atomic resolution, while they are cooled,” she said.

For example, battery technology researchers know that rechargeable batteries with metal electrodes degrade due to dendrites – metallic growths – that form at liquid-solid interfaces and can cause overheating and potentially catastrophic failure, but little is understood about the origins of these dendritic formations, Kourkoutis said. “If we stabilize these interfaces at very early stages of battery cycling, we can study their microscopic nature with cryo-electron microscopy, which will help us understand how dendrites form and ultimately how to design more durable batteries.”

Other hard-soft interfaces the microscope could illuminate include organic/mineral interfaces of tumors, calcified aortic valves and liquid/mineral complexes in soils, according to the NSF proposal.

Cornell already has cryo-electron microscopy facilities, but this instrument will take the capabilities to a new level, said Melissa Hines, professor of chemistry and chemical biology and CCMR director. Because the technology is so new, the success of research programs using the microscope will depend on technical staff hired to train users, she added.

A significant portion of the funds supplementing the NSF grant will come from an endowment established by the late Robert Sproull, former director of CCMR, Hines said. The endowment already supports a number of initiatives at CCMR, including the Sproull Lectures.

“He wanted the money to be used not just toward a little more of what we were already doing, but for something we really wanted to do but couldn’t do through existing means – something special,” Hines said.

The acquisition of the microscope was a collective effort spanning the College of Engineering, the College of Veterinary Medicine, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, CCMR, the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science and the Weill Institute for Cell and Molecular Biology. Co-PIs on the grant were David Muller, professor of applied and engineering physics; Lynden Archer, the William C. Hooey Professor and Director of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Lara Estroff, associate professor of materials science and engineering; and Hines.

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