$1 million microscope could change health care; NSF funds multi-university team headed by Rowan physics prof

$1 million microscope could change health care; NSF funds multi-university team headed by Rowan physics prof

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Dr. Taryl Kirk is leading a multi-university team embarked on changing the face of health care with the switch of a microscope.

That is, of course, some microscope. To be exact, an electron microscope capable of, among other things, to be used to explore hyperthermia treatment of cancer.

Kirk is confident the team, including collaborators from Rutgers and Villanova universities, will be able to improve drug delivery, further the use of gold nanoparticles for radiation therapy, and investigate electrical and magnetic properties of materials at the nanoscale thanks to the device. So is the National Science Foundation, which recently awarded him close to a million dollars to develop a novel cost-efficient electron microscope.

The physics and astronomy professor will use the NSF’s $994,365 Major Research Instrumentation Development grant to construct a near-field emission scanning electron microscope with polarization analysis (NFESEMPA), the first microscope of its kind in the world. The instrument currently is being developed at Rutgers, New Brunswick, and is projected to be installed at the South Jersey Technology Park at Rowan University in Mantua Township in two years.

Kirk and fellow researchers, including Rowan physics/mathematics student Joseph Perrotta from Warren, New Jersey, will use the NFESEMPA in many areas, including biological, medical, data storage, computing and renewable energy fields.

Kirk said “The device will immediately provide an alternative, high-resolution surface imaging device for researchers in both New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania,” The NFESEMPA provides the means to overcome many limitations of current research instrumentation, as much of the state-of-the-art research driving technology is based on microscopic phenomena.

The acquisition of the device will also be beneficial to students. Undergraduate students involved in the project will be trained and acquire expertise in techniques related to the microscope. Kirk is working with several student researchers, who will receive fundamental training for careers in nanotechnology. This program is also part of an international collaboration, and the students will work with his collaborators in Europe to learn other state-of-the-art techniques.

The instrumentation will be foundational for future technological developments, especially in the area of ultra-large-scale integrated circuits and spintronics. Ultra-large-scale integrated circuits involve the process of putting one million transistors on a single chip, and spintronics are devices that explicitly use the spin properties of electric charges instead of or in addition to typical electronic properties. Computer processors include ultra-large-scale integrated circuits, which allow them to run faster. Spintronics have several electronic applications; however, spintronics mainly use less power, increase the speed of data transfer and allow for data to be stored longer. 

Researchers also will use the equipment with industry partners. Kirk said many companies are interested in this device, and he currently has an industrial partner who is also a potential licensing partner – which could lead to the commercialization of the NFESEMPA. The Rowan team also will incorporate the device into outreach initiatives with underrepresented middle school and high school students from throughout New Jersey, introducing them to basic microscopy and its applications.