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CAF advanced in equipment, training

Joel Cassidy loads a specimen into the Kratos AXIS 165 X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer (Photo Courtesy of Richard Martens)

Samuel Yang

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The LEAP, which allows researchers to find atom positions in a specimen, is one of seven instruments at the Central Analytical Facility in the Tom Bevill Energy, Mineral and Material Science Research Building available to both student and faculty researchers.

“We have major research instruments that are too big and expensive for any one faculty person, or for that matter department, to have in their labs,” CAF Director David Nikles said. “It’s just too expensive to maintain them. That makes these instruments available for anybody on campus who wants to be trained in how to use it.”

Carl Pinkert, vice president for research, said major research instrumentation was acquired as far back as the early ‘90s, with a focus on mineralogical studies.

“Over the years, additional instrumentation needs were identified and acquired through NSF proposals with UA support,” he said. “It also became obvious that it would be advantageous to house like technologies and instrumentation in one central facility.”

The CAF was established in 2000. Service contracts for the instruments are maintained with support from the Office of the Vice President for Research, allowing fixed cost usage of the equipment.

“Service contracts are integral to keeping instruments running and operational. Service contracts also provide dedicated field service engineers and factory certified parts for repairs,” Pinkert said. “The CAF staff is essential to maintaining day-to-day operation of the instrumentation.”

CAF Manager Rich Martens and Instrumentation Specialists Johnny Goodwin and Rob Holler serve as first responders for the equipment, and field service engineers are available for advanced repairs.

“I came to do some collaborative work with Greg Thompson in 2005 to use one of the instruments while I was working at IMAGO,” Martens said. “But I was very impressed at the facility, at the complement of instruments, at the capabilities.”

Martens was brought on as expertise for the LEAP, which the University then invested in and upgraded through a National Science Foundation grant. The staff at the CAF maintains and troubleshoots the instruments, which also includes three types of electron microscopes, a focused ion beam, X-ray diffraction and auger analysis.

“The whole package of instruments is enabling,” Nikles said. “We call it multi-scale. In other words, you can go from the macroscopic scale, that means things you can touch, down to the nanoscale, which is almost the atomic scale.”

This wide spectrum is valuable to faculty members, who can do research at their own campus, instead of traveling to national laboratories.

“Faculty have to go out and get external grant funding to support a lot of the research, if not all of the research. Whenever you write proposals, you have to explain what facilities we have because you have to convince the agency, ‘Can we do that research?’” Nikles said. “Agencies will come to us and offer us research grants. That’s happening, recently.”

Nikles said the CAF’s mission encompasses the University’s mission of teaching, research and service. Students, both undergraduate and graduate, are able to train on the CAF’s instruments.

“They’re all doing research, but in this case, we’re educating the next generation of scientists and allowing them to get hands on the instrument and become adept at using the instrument,” he said. “That’s very valuable for their career.”

Martens said giving students hands-on experience at the CAF helps provide them a more personal connection to their research.

“It is a very big deal. The CAF prides itself on being a hands-on user facility,” he said. “A lot of other facilities don’t let the general student population have access to the instruments. We try to train everybody and give everybody equal access.”

Joseph Waters, a doctoral student in material sciences, has worked with the CAF in his past four years at the University. His research on things like semiconductors is efficient, tangible and hands-on because it can be conducted at a small scale through the CAF.

“It makes you feel extremely privileged to be able to take part of research that can only be conducted in so many places in the world,” he said.

He said the staff is welcoming, and their influence on his research will be carried into the industrial sector. Since his work in graduate school is exactly like what he will be doing in the industrial field, Waters said, experience with the equipment he can access at the CAF is essential.

“If you want to get into a job market that’s extremely exclusive, you have to know how to be an expert on that machine by the time you graduate from grad school,” he said. “It’s more than just an invaluable experience. It’s sort of your stepping stool to your career in life.”

Amy Grano, senior chemist at Inventure Renewables, used the CAF for her graduate studies at the University and has returned to use it for her job.

“As I travelled to conferences to present work done at UA and in the CAF, I learned that at many other universities, the students don’t actually get the chance to get training on the instrumentation. They just hand off their sample to a technician to analyze and get back data,” she said. “Here at the CAF, the students actually get trained on the operation of the instruments, and have the opportunity to interact with the CAF staff to help all the way from training to data analysis.”

Tyler Kaub, a graduate student who did his undergraduate studies at the University of Florida, said his entire graduate research will be based on data collected from CAF instruments.

“The CAF is one of the most valuable facilities at UA because it provides world-class materials characterization capabilities for the University. It services the entire school, so researchers from many different departments can used shared facilities,” he said. “It is the reason why I chose UA for graduate school, and I know it is the reason why other students choose to study here as well.”

Florian Vogel, currently a postdoctoral scholar in Germany, is at the University and CAF for a four-week scientific visit.

“For me, the CAF is interesting because of its state-of-the-art instruments. You really can do almost everything here,” Vogel said. “Particularly, I was interested in using the LEAP. It’s a pretty sophisticated instrument, and there exist only a few worldwide.”

Vogel’s visit ends next week, but he said he would like to use the CAF again in the future.

“We will see what the future brings,” he said. “Maybe I’ll come here for a post-doc, since the possibility to utilize something like the CAF is really unique and inviting.”

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CAF advanced in equipment, training