The college of sciences houses the most powerful microscope on earth, the first one of its kind to ever leave Japanese manufacturers. Being able to manipulate observed material in such a small scale enables UTSA’s researchers to explore the universe of the very small—and the very important.
With two powerful state-of-the-art microscopes just installed a year ago, the university sets itself to redefine what it means to be Tier One through the future of nanotechnology.
Manipulation of cancer cells, futuristic fabrics and alternative-energy research intermingle inside the department of physics and astronomy while the college of engineering warms up their own tools.
Dr. Amar Bhalla, the associate dean of research for the college of engineering, is in charge of the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM), the $200,000, highly sophisticated tool for imaging and manipulating different kinds of matter.
The AFM uses a scale so small, it requires a measurement using angstroms. A single angstrom is 10 times smaller than a billionth of a meter.
Metaphorically, this is similar to observing what is happening to a single organism in one planet and seeing the entire galaxy simultaneously.
Once the AFM conduces the surface material, Bhalla explains that the microscope provides a “unique kind of resolution” in terms of pixels.
“We now have the ability to see individual atoms of almost any kind of material. Whether they are biological, neutral or electrical, we can now see what kind of charges they have, and how their nanostructures are formed,” Bhalla said.
The engineering feat of the AFM does not lie in the ability to observe the most basic unit of matter, but in its capability to provide the most precise type of microscopic maneuverability. In fact, the AFM’s invention earned Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of IBM Zurich the Nobel Prize for physics.
However, to simulate such a visual image in 3D would require another type of microscope—the most powerful in the world. The college of sciences (COS) is proud to house such an advanced piece of technology.
Enter the $3 million JEM-ARM200F. With a scanning transmission image of 0.08 nanometers, it boasts the highest resolution in the world. In terms of scientific advantage, Dr. Miguel Jose-Yacaman, the department chair of physics and astronomy, calls the JEM “the Holy Grail for [UTSA]” as stated in the Catalyst, the magazine of the COS. The JEM is also known as “Helenita,” for Helen Kleberg Groves from the Robert J. Kleberg Foundation, which awarded a $1.2 Million grant towards JEM’s purchase.
Numerous research projects are already under way with the use of the JEM and AFM. One research project focuses on the rapid detection of infectious organisms such as cancer cells. Conducted by Dr. Randolph Glickman and Dr. Saher Maswadi of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), this medical application using nanoparticles will ultimately enable doctors to diagnose medical problems in the most efficient manner.
Another project focuses on the complete manipulation of the nanostructures within fabric material. Conducted by Doctors Arturo Ayon, Andrey Chabanov, and Chonglin Chen, this research applies techniques to demonstrate power generation from fibers that can be used in a variety of civilian and military fabrics.
“Smart clothing with electronics in the pockets or in the fabric is primarily for communications, color or picture display, mood indications, body sensing and other feats such as (wireless) messaging,” according to the UTSA Physics and Astronomy website.
Other applications for such a type of clothing might include “GPS systems, fall detectors, accelerometer and activity detector attached to the garments.” Special Research Associate, Dr. Arturo Ponce-Pedraza, suggests that with digital information embedded in fabrics, futuristic clothing is in mind with this unique approach of nanotechnology.
For UTSA, the installment of the AFM and the JEM is not only a step closer to Tier One status, but also towards the development of nanotechnology. Items such as fuel cells, solar cells, and batteries can be built smaller but can be modified to be more effective.
Nanotechnology in medicine is now focusing on areas like bone repair, tissue regeneration, improved self-immunity, and even the quest for curing diseases like cancer and diabetes.
These recent installments within the university have established international collaborations with scientists in countries such as Brazil, India and Thailand. When asked about the forecast of this university as a research institute, Bhalla stressed that the college of engineering is “aiming high” to surpass all expectations in the years to come. However, the goal is to ultimately gain knowledge to improve society.
“Changes in technology depend on what happens in the future, and vice-versa, only the future can decide what changes in technology,” Bhalla said.