$1.7 million x-ray microscope to unleash WSU materials research

colorful microscopic images from ZeissWhen it arrives on campus this fall, a powerful new $1.7 million x-ray microscope will help Washington State University scientists develop specialized materials for technologies such as self-healing roads, printable batteries and super-efficient solar cells.

WSU will be the first U.S. university to have the ZEISS Xradia Ultra 810’s state-of-the-art, 3D imaging capabilities.

The unique microscope can create three-dimensional models of a material’s interior down to 50 nanometer resolution. Such precision will enable researchers across the university to design more efficient and powerful components for technologies ranging from batteries and solar cells to drug delivery methods that use nanoparticles to target cancerous tumors. It also will provide faculty a competitive advantage when applying for future research grants.

“In order to make high performance materials better or more versatile, you need to be able to characterize and control the arrangements of atoms inside them,” said Aurora Clark, professor of chemistry and principal investigator for the Xradia Ultra program. “Previously, WSU scientists had to go somewhere like the Argonne National Laboratory outside of Chicago to do the kind of imaging we will now be able to do in-house.”

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the Joint Center for Deployment and Research in Earth Abundant Materials (JCDREAM) and WSU provided funding for the instrument.

A host of applications

The Xradia Ultra will be installed in the WSU Center for Materials Research. Faculty from the departments of physics, materials and mechanical engineering, chemistry, and civil engineering are already gearing up to use it. Several collaborative research projects between WSU and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., are also in the works.

Kelvin Lynn, co-principal investigator and director of the Center for Materials Research, and his colleagues in the Department of Physics and Astronomy will use the instrument to improve the performance and power of materials used in solar cells and sensors. Their research could make the cost of solar power more competitive with conventional energy.

Mechanical and materials engineering faculty Arda Gozen and Weihong Zhong plan to use the microscope’s nanoscale imaging capabilities to design better processes for printing powerful batteries just a few millimeters in size.

Balasingam Muhunthan, chair of civil and environmental engineering at WSU, and Hussein Zbib, professor of mechanical and materials engineering, are looking to study unique organic materials that heal themselves when they are cracked or perturbed. Their research into improving the materials’ performance could lead to self-healing roadways that would be easier and less expensive to maintain.

New industry partners

The microscope also will open opportunities to establish new connections with industry partners. For example, TerraPower, a nuclear energy company based in Bellevue, Wash., and First Solar, a solar energy company based in Santa Clara, Calif., both anticipate collaborating with WSU to study various materials for energy applications.

“The Xradia Ultra will benefit established research programs, enable midcareer scientists to expand their research opportunities and provide students with valuable experience operating a state-of-the-art machine,” Lynn said. “We are very grateful to the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and JCDREAM for helping us acquire a scientific instrument that catapults WSU materials research and education to the next level.”

Top photo: Images courtesy of Zeiss

By Will Ferguson, College of Arts and Sciences