Three research groups at Lehigh have each received a competitive federal grant to purchase or develop state-of-the-art equipment, an achievement the university’s top research officer calls “astonishing.”
The groups, headed by chemists, physicists and engineers, were awarded the grants through the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Major Research Instrumentation (MRI) program.
“To get one MRI award is very significant,” says Bruce Koel, interim vice president and associate provost for research and graduate studies. “To get three is almost inconceivable.”
American universities and colleges are allowed to submit three MRI proposals each year—two to acquire equipment and one to develop new instruments that are not commercially available. In 2008, NSF awarded 224 MRI grants, including one to Koel. Several universities received two awards, but only the University of California at Santa Barbara received three.
The following Lehigh groups received MRI awards:
• Richard Vinci (materials science and engineering) and Slava Rotkin (physics) are principal investigators (PIs) in a project to acquire a scanning probe microscope (SPM) to visualize, assemble and analyze materials at the nano- and molecular scales. An SPM scans a material’s surface with a needle that detects surface modulations, magnetic and chemical forces, atomic and electronic structure, and other topographical features. Unlike an electron microscope, which operates in a vacuum, an SPM can characterize materials in liquid or air. It is well-suited to study bio- and nanomaterials.
• Chemistry professors Greg Ferguson, PI, and Dmitri Vezenov, co-PI, will acquire a spectroscopic ellipsometer for surface and materials analysis. The instrument determines optically the thickness of extremely thin films whose dimensions cannot be easily measured with other methods. The films are used in biomaterials, coatings, self-assembled monolayers and optoelectronic devices.
• Daniel Ou-Yang (physics; PI) and co-PIs Ivan Biaggio (physics), Volkmar Dierolf (physics) and Mark Snyder (chemical engineering), will develop spectroscopic imaging optical bottles to analyze nanoparticles in confinement. Ou-Yang is a pioneer in the use of laser “tweezers” to trap and study cells and microparticles. More recently, he has developed an “optical bottle” to study particle-to-particle interactions. The MRI award will enable his team to control and manipulate multiple nanoparticles while their physical behavior and material properties are characterized.
The MRI program seeks to expand faculty and student access to research equipment, to promote research with broad impact, and to promote interdisciplinary research, multi-organization collaboration, and academic-private endeavors.
The receipt of three awards, Koel says, speaks well of Lehigh’s research infrastructure, interdisciplinary research and outside partnerships. The Nanocharacterization Laboratory, for example, houses the largest suite of electron microscopes in the U.S., hosts the world’s premiere annual Microscopy School, and serves as a resource for researchers from industry, government labs and other universities.
And Lehigh’s surface analysis capability received a boost when Koel and Israel Wachs, professor of chemical engineering, received a 2008 MRI award to buy a high-sensitivity low energy ion scattering (HS-LEIS) spectrometer. The instrument, the first in the U.S., helps determine the chemistry and structure of materials in the outermost atomic layer of surfaces and interfaces.
“Getting three MRI awards this year affirms the quality of our research and the ability of our faculty to write proposals,” Koel says. “It will help us win future research awards. When you’re writing a proposal, your chances of winning an award are greatly improved if you have the instrumentation necessary to conduct the research.”