Last week, USC researchers headed to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to accept a scanning electron microscope (SEM) that is being donated to the USC Michelson John O’Brien Nanofabrication Laboratory.
Andrea Armani, the Ray Irani Chair in Engineering and Material Sciences and the USC faculty member who has been overseeing the development and operations of the “Nanofab,” explains that a scanning electron microscope allows scientists to image an object around one nanometer thick in structure which is similar to DNA. This magnification is not possible with a conventional optical microscope which relies on photons. The higher-energy electrons allow smaller features to be resolved. But this specific microscope has a special capability. It can also determine what elements are present in a material, making it a very powerful and useful tool.
While at JPL, the system contributed to numerous space missions, including the spectrometer on the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity that discovered methane on Mars and the detector that is currently flying on the Mars Climate Sounder (MCS) as part of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. These types of instruments, combining innovation in optics and electronics, are also being developed in the O’Brien nanofab at USC.
One use of the SEM, says Armani, might be to analyze a neuroprobe circuitry. In this case, one would want to make sure that the probe was sterile and without residue from fabrication, which is a feature offered by the new tool. In addition, it would allow researchers to check for any imperfections in their fabrication process.
This SEM will be one of two at the University Park campus with this capability and the only SEM in the nanofabrication facility. By placing it in a core user facility with permanent staff support, it will also be readily available to researchers across Southern California. When combined with the facility’s recently acquired multi-million dollar e-beam writer for patterning nano-structures, the John O’Brien nanofabrication laboratory is now home to a complete suite of nano-imaging and nano-writing instrumentation. This capability will accelerate the research supported by the facility, allowing researchers to create devices that address many pressing health and environmental issues as well as push the limits of quantum technologies.