*ETA Nov. 4, 2015: I’m apologizing to anyone wishing to read this posting as it’s a bit of a mess. I deeply regret mishandling the situation. In future, I shall not be taking any corrections from individual researchers to materials such as news releases that have been issued by an institution. Whether or not the individual researchers are happy with how their contributions or how a colleague’s contributions or how their home institutions have been characterized is a matter for them and their home institutions.
The August 10, 2015 ORNL news release with all the correct details has been added to the end of this post.*
A researcher at the University of Central Florida (UCF) has developed a microscope that uses vibrations for better analysis of chemical composition. From an Aug. 10, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,
It’s a discovery that could have promising implications for fields as varied as biofuel production, solar energy, opto-electronic devices, pharmaceuticals and medical research.
“What we’re interested in is the tools that allow us to understand the world at a very small scale,” said UCF professor Laurene Tetard, formerly of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Not just the shape of the object, but its mechanical properties, its composition and how it evolves in time.”
An Aug. 10, 2015 UCF news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the limitations of atomic force microscopy and gives a few details about the hybrid microscope (Note: A link has been removed),
For more than two decades, scientists have used atomic force microscopy – a probe that acts like an ultra-sensitive needle on a record player – to determine the surface characteristics of samples at the microscopic scale. A “needle” that comes to an atoms-thin point traces a path over a sample, mapping the surface features at a sub-cellular level [nanoscale].
But that technology has its limits. It can determine the topographical characteristics of [a] sample, but it can’t identify its composition. And with the standard tools currently used for chemical mapping, anything smaller than roughly half a micron is going to look like a blurry blob, so researchers are out of luck if they want to study what’s happening at the molecular level.
A team led by Tetard has come up with a hybrid form of that technology that produces a much clearer chemical image. As described Aug. 10 in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, Hybrid Photonic-Nanomechanical Force Microscopy (HPFM) can discern a sample’s topographic characteristics together with the chemical properties at a much finer scale.
The HPFM method is able to identify materials based on differences in the vibration produced when they’re subjected to different wavelengths of light – essentially a material’s unique “fingerprint.”
“What we are developing is a completely new way of making that detection possible,” said Tetard, who has joint appointments to UCF’s Physics Department, Material Science and Engineering Department and the NanoScience Technology Center.
The researchers proved the effectiveness of HPFM while examining samples from an eastern cottonwood tree, a potential source of biofuel. By examining the plant samples at the nanoscale, the researchers for the first time were able to determine the molecular traits of both untreated and chemically processed cottonwood inside the plant cell walls.
The research team included Tetard; Ali Passian, R.H. Farahi and Brian Davison, all of Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and Thomas Thundat of the University of Alberta.
Long term, the results will help reveal better methods for producing the most biofuel from the cottonwood, a potential boon for industry. Likewise, the new method could be used to examine samples of myriad plants to determine whether they’re good candidates for biofuel production.
Potential uses of the technology go beyond the world of biofuel. Continued research may allow HPFM to be used as a probe so, for instance, it would be possible to study the effect of new treatments being developed to save plants such as citrus trees from bacterial diseases rapidly decimating the citrus industry, or study fundamental photonically-induced processes in complex systems such as in solar cell materials or opto-electronic devices.
Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,
Opto-nanomechanical spectroscopic material characterization by L. Tetard, A. Passian, R. H. Farahi, T. Thundat, & B. H. Davison. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.168 Published online 10 August 2015
This paper is behind a paywall.
*ETA August 27, 2015:
August 10, 2015 ORNL news release (Note: Funding information and a link to the paper [previously given] have been removed):
A microscope being developed at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory will allow scientists studying biological and synthetic materials to simultaneously observe chemical and physical properties on and beneath the surface.
The Hybrid Photonic Mode-Synthesizing Atomic Force Microscope is unique, according to principal investigator Ali Passian of ORNL’s Quantum Information System group. As a hybrid, the instrument, described in a paper published in Nature Nanotechnology, combines the disciplines of nanospectroscopy and nanomechanical microscopy.
“Our microscope offers a noninvasive rapid method to explore materials simultaneously for their chemical and physical properties,” Passian said. “It allows researchers to study the surface and subsurface of synthetic and biological samples, which is a capability that until now didn’t exist.”
ORNL’s instrument retains all of the advantages of an atomic force microscope while simultaneously offering the potential for discoveries through its high resolution and subsurface spectroscopic capabilities.
“The originality of the instrument and technique lies in its ability to provide information about a material’s chemical composition in the broad infrared spectrum of the chemical composition while showing the morphology of a material’s interior and exterior with nanoscale – a billionth of a meter – resolution,” Passian said.
Researchers will be able to study samples ranging from engineered nanoparticles and nanostructures to naturally occurring biological polymers, tissues and plant cells.
The first application as part of DOE’s BioEnergy Science Center was in the examination of plant cell walls under several treatments to provide submicron characterization. The plant cell wall is a layered nanostructure of biopolymers such as cellulose. Scientists want to convert such biopolymers to free the useful sugars and release energy.
An earlier instrument, also invented at ORNL, provided imaging of poplar cell wall structures that yielded unprecedented topological information, advancing fundamental research in sustainable biofuels.
Because of this new instrument’s impressive capabilities, the researcher team envisions broad applications.
“An urgent need exists for new platforms that can tackle the challenges of subsurface and chemical characterization at the nanometer scale,” said co-author Rubye Farahi. “Hybrid approaches such as ours bring together multiple capabilities, in this case, spectroscopy and high-resolution microscopy.”
Looking inside, the hybrid microscope consists of a photonic module that is incorporated into a mode-synthesizing atomic force microscope. The modular aspect of the system makes it possible to accommodate various radiation sources such as tunable lasers and non-coherent monochromatic or polychromatic sources.
ETA2 August 27, 2015: I’ve received an email from one of the paper’s authors (RH Farahi of the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory [ORNL]) who claims some inaccuracies in this piece. The news release supplied by the University of Central Florida states that Dr. Tetard led the team and that is not so. According to Dr. Farahi, she had a postdoctoral position on the team which she left two years ago. You might also get the impression that some of the work was performed at the University of Central Florida. That is not so according to Dr. Farahi. As a courtesy Dr. Tetard was retained as first author of the paper.
*Nov. 4, 2015: I suspect some of the misunderstanding was due to overeagerness and/or time pressures. Whoever wrote the news release may have made some assumptions. It’s very easy to make a mistake when talking to an ebullient scientist who can unintentionally lead you to believe something that’s not so. I worked in a high tech company and believed that there was some new software being developed which turned out to be a case of high hopes. Luckily, I said something that triggered a rapid rebuttal to the fantasies. Getting back to this situation, other contributing factors could include the writer not having time to get the news release reviewed the scientist or the scientist skimming the release and missing a few bits due to time pressure.*