Materials Matter

From bee brains to snowboards, this lab can study it.

Sample of a hydrogel that was created for use in a drug delivery application, analyzed by the instruments and expertise of the Materials Characterization Lab. Image: Courtesy of Josh Stapleton

Stroll through the serene garden at the entrance of the Millennium Science Complex on the University Park Campus, and it will give you no hint of what’s happening directly beneath your feet. Those shrubs and winding gravel pathways serve as the roof of the Materials Characterization Lab(MCL), where researchers collaborate to solve the wide range of materials-related problems that come their way from within the University and beyond.

“We’re a collection of instruments and people,” says Josh Stapleton, operations manager of the MCL, which is part of the Materials Research Institute. The lab’s array of instruments and capabilities, including electron microscopy, surface analysis, molecular spectroscopy, and x-ray scattering, allows users to evaluate aspects of materials such as composition, structure, and electrical conductivity. And the lab’s staff has the expertise to handle everything from basic hands-on training of students to real-world industry applications. In an average year, the lab sees more than 1,000 users from about 40 Penn State departments and 100 external organizations, including industry, academic institutions, and government.

“We’ll help you figure it out”

The MCL operates as a shared user facility. “That means that—no matter what discipline you’re in—if you’re doing research and the instrument you need lives in our lab, you can come to us,” Stapleton says. “We’ll help you become a trained, proficient user of that instrument.” While many researchers approach the lab knowing exactly what instrument they need, others simply present their problem and MCL staff guide them to the technology that can solve it.

Most of the lab’s clients are in engineering, physics, and materials disciplines, but lab staff also work with researchers from many other fields. The MCL has helped archaeologists explore ancient environments and reconstruct prehistoric trade networks, and entomologist Christina Grozinger and her colleagues are using Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry to map brain tissue and measure molecules that regulate social and reproductive behavior of honey bees and bumble bees.

“No matter what discipline you’re in, if you’re doing research and the instrument you need lives in our lab, you can come to us.”

One recent industry success story involves the design and manufacture of a top-of-the-line snowboard. Gilson Snowboards, of East Berlin, Pennsylvania, came to the MCL with an adhesion problem: Two of the layers they use to build their signature snowboards weren’t holding together. “Snowboard manufacturers have to glue together multiple layers of dissimilar materials,” explains Dave Fecko, industry relations manager for the Materials Research Institute. “One of the layers Gilson uses in the laminate stack is a high molecular weight polyethylene, which really doesn’t like to stick to anything else. Traditional adhesive methods involve flame-treating the material’s surface with a torch. Using some of MCL’s analytical tools, we identified a process to optimize—and it brought the same result time and time again.”

Gilson’s collaboration with MCL made it possible for the company to build snowboards with “arguably the best adhesion in the world,” says CEO Nicholas Gilson. “And the response to our product—both from a performance perspective and construction perspective—has taken off. Since our collaboration we’ve watched our numbers double over and over again.”

The lab also plays an important role in education, training undergraduate and graduate students how to use instrumentation independently. “Because of this facility, Penn State students have access to state-of-the-art analytical instruments, some of which are powerful enough to image individual atoms,” says Stapleton. “That’s pretty rare.”

Quiet, please

A priority in the design process for the Millennium Science Complex was to build ultra-quiet lab space for highly specialized, multi-million-dollar instruments, particularly electron microscopes. That’s why the MCL is underground. “We need to be isolated,” Stapleton says. “We can’t have people walking around on a floor above us, creating vibrations. So right above our heads is the garden—our roof—which is supported by steel beams that keep it physically separated from the lab space beneath.”

Stapleton refers to each microscope lab as a building, rather than a room, because each space is actually a separate structure. In fact, the MCL’s atomic resolution microscope not only sits in its own building, it is operated from yet another building because of its sensitivity to the smallest of vibrations: It has a resolution of about 70 picometers, less than half the diameter of a carbon atom.

As scientific equipment becomes more and more sophisticated and costly, the shared user model becomes ever more important. “Rather than buying five expensive instruments and distributing them across campus, let’s just buy one and put it in a place where it can be used by everyone and staffed and by experts,” Stapleton says. “That’s good stewardship.”