First-of-its-kind instrument to call CoorsTek Center home

A Colorado School of Mines professor has secured National Science Foundation funding for a state-of-the-art instrument that will allow researchers to gain a three-dimensional view of the shape, composition and bonding of a wide variety of materials.

David Diercks, research assistant professor of metallurgical and materials engineering, was recently awarded $999,700 from the NSF Major Research Instrumentation program to purchase a Raman imaging-scanning electron microscope/focused ion beam instrument that will be openly available to academic researchers. 

And while instruments with some of the same capabilities currently exist in private facilities, the Mines instrument will be the first of its kind located in an open facility anywhere in the world.

That facility will be the International Center for Multiscale Characterization (ICMC), led by Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Associate Professors Corinne Packard and Brian Gorman and housed in the new CoorsTek Center for Applied Science and Engineering.

“What’s unique is it combines multiple capabilities into one platform,” Diercks said. “They’re all things that right now can be done individually and you could potentially transfer between platforms. But in the least, it's inconvenient. At the worst, it’s impossible. Together, the whole instrument facilitates unprecedented access to three-dimensional phase, bonding, structure, morphology and compositional relationship analysis spanning many orders of magnitude in length.”

Among the components are a scanning electron microscope that can image surface shape and structure and an X-ray spectroscopy detector to measure composition. More unique, though, is the Raman spectrometer, which shows how a material’s atoms are bonded to each other.

“Knowing the composition isn’t always sufficient. Just changing how atoms are bonded greatly changes the material’s properties,” Diercks said. “The best example I can give is graphite and diamond – they are both entirely made of carbon but they’re very different materials. Diamond is very hard and graphite is very soft and slippery. The thing that’s different is just how they’re bonded to each other. If you just look at the composition you’d say it’s carbon. But by knowing how it’s bonded, you can know whether it’s diamond or graphite.”

The instrument will also have a focused ion beam, which will allow researchers to slice into the material and look at all three aspects – shape, composition and bonding – in three dimensions. 

Information about how the three aspects evolve as a function of temperature will be available, as well, thanks to the instrument’s heating stage.

The instrument should have applications in a wide variety of fields, including ceramics, geology and biomaterials, Diercks said. 

Co-PIs on the project are Alexis Navarre-Sitchler, associate professor of geology and geological engineering, and Melissa Krebs, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering. 

Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 |
Ashley Spurgeon, Editor, Mines Magazine | 303-273-3959 |


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Colorado School of Mines is a public research university focused on science and engineering, where students and faculty together address the great challenges society faces today - particularly those related to the Earth, energy and the environment.