Micro view; macro applications

Micro view; macro applications

How one high-resolution microscope is zooming in on our world
September 22, 2011
Students use the microscope to examine traces of

Students use the microscope to examine traces of pollutants on specimens from trees in areas with heavy traffic. Sharon Lackie shares the microscope with a variety of researchers and the general public.
Sharon Lackie, University of Windsor

It’s been used for everything from examining bacteria and how rare earth minerals have developed over millions of years to creating vibrant visual images for improvisational musical performances. The versatile environmental scanning electron microscope (SEM), a $1.2 million piece of machinery funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, is housed at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER). This extraordinary microscope is being used by researchers from across campus and in the community.

One of only four of its kind in Canada, the SEM employs beams of electrons to scan samples and magnify them up to 200,000 times. The resulting visuals offer unique insights into the structure and composition of materials, an invaluable aid to researchers trying to solve a range of complex problems.

  • Researchers in automotive and materials engineering, for instance, have used the SEM to study aluminum-silicon alloys for lightweight engines. The SEM helps them measure the micro-structural wear that occurs on the surface of those alloys when they are in constant contact with other moving parts in the engine. “The results have helped us to design and manufacture more durable lightweight alloys for automotive engines,” says Mehdi Shafiei, a research coordinator who collaborates regularly with General Motors and other industrial partners.
  • Biogeochemist Chris Weisener uses the SEM to analyze how naturally occurring bacterial microbes break down the tailings left behind by mining operations in Northern Ontario and the Alberta oil sands. A professor at GLIER and in the university’s earth and environmental sciences department, Weisener says his research helps both government regulators and natural-resource companies determine the best methods for returning mined landscapes back to their original state. “This wouldn’t be possible without the high-resolution SEM images we’re able to obtain,” he says.
  • Iain Samson, one of Weisener’s department colleagues, uses the SEM routinely to analyze platinum and rare earth elements. Information he has gleaned from the SEM imagery has helped him make major advances in the growth history of minerals like fluorite and quartz — minerals that are associated with important mineral deposits, such as high-technology metals and gold. Tracing the growth of these minerals provides valuable insight for predicting where new sources of the metals might be found.
  • The SEM has even been used for promoting the arts. Music professor Brent Lee, a member of the experimental group Noiseborder Ensemble, used it to take images of portions of musical instruments that were then projected onto a screen during a performance last year called Particle Zoo, which “explored the ideas of scale and the perception of time sonically and visually.”
  • The community has also embraced the SEM. Students from a local high school’s environmental committee collected samples of tree leaves, pine cones and bark from a neighbourhood situated next to one of the most heavily travelled transportation corridors in Canada. Using the SEM, they found that their samples were covered with particles of iron, silicon and magnesium. The students were amazed by the trees’ ability to filter such particles from the air, leading them to conclude that more trees should be planted in the area.

Technician Sharon Lackie, who travelled to Holland to learn how to use the SEM and has worked with it for the past four years, says she loves helping graduate students and faculty scientists from across campus conduct cutting-edge research. Aside from her University of Windsor colleagues, she has also worked with a paleontologist from the University of Toronto, who used the microscope to discover a new species of mollusc embedded in a fossil that was millions of years old.

“I get to analyze all this really neat stuff all day,” says Lackie. “And by having the facility here, researchers have access to state-of-the-art equipment without having to travel elsewhere, which means higher productivity and lower research costs.”