Microscope Takes Physics Studies to Higher Levels

The Physics Department recently acquired an advanced microscope that is being used in nanotechnology classes being taught for the first time at Walla Walla University.


The atomic force microscope, valued at $30,000, takes a picture in a method very similar to the method used by the blind to read a Braille book. A small finger, called a cantilever, drags slowly over the surface of the sample to be imaged. A computer compiles the height information from each point into a single picture.


Because each point on the object must be visited, it takes quite awhile to make an image. However, the atomic force microscope (AFM) can see very small things. The largest picture the model can take is about 0.05 mm wide, but the smallest picture possible is about 100 atoms wide.
Something to note about the AFM is that it isn’t what one would typically expect of a microscope.


“One of the biggest frustrations people have with the AFM,” explains Tom Ekkens, chair of the Physics Department, “is that it isn’t a microscope you can put your eyes up to and look through like everyone imagines a microscope to be.”


In fact, the part of the AFM responsible for taking the image is a hexagon measuring about three inches on each side. Another box, about the size of a large textbook, houses the electronics and the interface to the computer. All of the “looking” is done on the computer screen.


The Physics Department taught nanotechnology using the new AFM for the first time during winter quarter 2007. The department plans to offer the class every two years in the future. In the short time the department has had the AFM, it has already been used to work on a joint project with a group at University of Washington.


“I am very grateful for the support we received from our alumni,” says Ekkens. “They gave us the means to purchase this fabulous technology that will make classes much more real and hands-on in the future."

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Last update on September 23, 2008