SRU researchers receive NASA grant to build atomic force microscope


Students pour liquid nitrogen

From left, Slippery Rock University students Tiffany Jolayemi and Charleigh Rondeaupour pour liquid nitrogen into a cryostat machine as part of a NASA-funded research project to build and test a cryogenic atomic force microscope system.

May 28, 2021

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The building of one small microscope is a giant leap for student researchers at Slippery Rock University, and someday their creation might touch the surface of a planet. Seven SRU students are working this summer on a research project led by Sagar Bhandari, assistant professor of physics and engineering, that is being funded by a $25,000 grant from NASA through the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium.

The research team is working on a portable cryogenic atomic force microscope system that is intended to analyze particles on interplanetary surfaces. A portable microscope is needed because it's much more difficult and expensive to have a spacecraft retrieve samples from space to bring back to Earth and analyze under a big microscope. Instead, the SRU researchers are developing a microscope that is small and resilient enough to be sent to interplanetary surfaces such as Mars or the moon.

"There is a need for having a compact tool that you can send to these planets," Bhandari said. "This microscope will allow research scientists to scan over the surface to see what the structure of the soil is like down to a few nanometers of resolution. This will give scientists a better understanding of the physical and chemical properties of the soil there and maybe that will shed some light on the origin of a place like Mars and explain its current state."



Bhandari, who joined the SRU faculty in 2019, previously studied electron imaging and microscopy of quantum materials while earning his Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard University. He's using some of his designs and techniques for this NASA-funded project that is intended to get more undergraduate students involved with this type of graduate-level research that would normally be conducted at advanced research-intensive institutions, known as Research I universities.

Established in 1989 at Penn State University, the PSGC's mission is to expand opportunities for people to learn about and participate in NASA's aeronautics and space programs by supporting and enhancing science and engineering education, research and outreach programs.

"It is rare to have undergraduates work on these types of projects," Bhandari said. "This research is complex because you need to find the right recipe to build this tool and have the microscope function properly, both mechanically and electrically, in extreme temperatures and without gravity."

"This research is exciting because it's not something that a student like me at a smaller school would normally get to do," said Sara Danowski, a junior industrial and systems engineering major from Manorville, New York. "This will definitely look good on a resume, but it's also not just everyday research ... it's space research."

Danowski and six other students are being paid through the grant to work 20 hours per week in a lab at SRU's Vincent Science Center. Each student has a designated role, such as Danowski using software to design parts that are generated using one of three 3-D printers in the lab. But all of the students work together and get to perform tasks such as pouring liquid nitrogen into a cryostat machine, which is a closed-cycle chamber that is used to test parts in temperatures as low as minus-340 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Especially after having online classes last year because of COVID, this is great to have hands-on experiences with professors and work as part of a team, which is a huge part of engineering," Danowski said. "This project has been really good for introducing us to new skills and to what it will be like to work on a project as an engineer."

Students are receiving technical skills as well, such as using SolidWork, the computer-aided design and engineering program that Danowski uses, or a computer numerical control milling machine used by Robert Taylor, a senior physics major from Pittsburgh.

Other students working on the project include Ashton Bloom, a senior physics major from East Berlin; Crystal Gross, a senior physics major from Pittsburgh; Tiffany Jolayemi, a senior industrial and systems engineering major from Murrysville; Charleigh Rondeau, a junior a junior industrial and systems engineering major from Amherst, New York; and Andrew Smeltzer, a senior physics major from Irwin.

Although the atomic force microscope the students are building will only be about 10-by-10 centimeters, there are many steps involved to test the instrument using simulated conditions it would encounter in the fluctuating temperatures and in the vacuum of space.

"You cannot buy this type of equipment; you have to build it," Bhandari said. "A commercial-level atomic force microscope would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and it would take up a lot of space. When you're sending something into space, every kilogram increases the cost."

The exact microscope that the SRU researchers are building won't necessarily end up on a space shuttle anytime soon, but the project could spur further research by others through open-source sharing, thereby benefitting the entire scientific community.

"NASA continues to send more robots to Mars to study the surface and they could learn from our design," Bhandari said. "Even if NASA doesn't use our equipment, other researchers can use our design to build a low-cost, atomic force microscope that works at low temperatures and low vacuum. This microscope could also be used to study things like semiconducting devices or other materials beyond space particles."

Bhandari anticipates two results from the research: the instrumentation results, which is the building of the tool, and experimental results, which is using the tool to study something. By the end of 2021, the team plans to publish results in peer-reviewed journals and present at conferences, as stipulated by the terms of the NASA grant.

More information about the grant program is available on the PSGC website, and more information about Physics and Engineering at SRU is available on the department webpage.

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