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Meet the U’s newest research instrument

This article was originally published by the Office of the Vice President of Research.

It’s not every day or even every year that the University of Utah gets a research instrument that is the envy of many universities and institutions. But recently, the U welcomed an X-ray microscope that will promote research innovations, discoveries and collaborations.

In January, the Utah Nanofab announced the arrival of a new Zeiss Xradia Versa 620 X-ray microscope, which was installed a few weeks later. It’s an X-ray microscope that will “provide 3D, sub-micron imaging resolution of hard, soft and biological materials,” according to the department’s announcement. “Materials can be studied under mechanical loads (up to 5 kN) and/or temperature conditions (-20 to 160 C).”

The Versa 620 is a state-of-the-art instrument that will be unique in the Intermountain West region, Utah Nanofab added. A wide range of transformative studies in various fields will be enabled, they added, including aerospace materials, semiconductor devices, additive manufactured materials, geology, biology, medicine and more.

We spoke to Dr. Jacob Hochhalter, PI on the NSF proposal that funded the instrument acquisition and Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the U. He told us more about the Versa 620, what it can do, and how it will move forward research and discoveries at the U.

Tell us about what the Versa 620 is and what it does.

First, it’s an X-ray microscope. Starting from those two words, it should paint two pictures in your mind. The first is the commonly known X-ray image, which illustrates differences in material densities as varying contrast (light vs. dark), like differentiating a bone from its surrounding tissue. Second, the microscope part, means that researchers can make observations at small scales (think very small fractions of the diameter of a human hair). Consequently, beyond what a patient might conventionally see at the doctor, in the X-ray microscope researchers can also magnify to observe the very small length scales at which many fundamental mechanisms of materials operate.  The level of magnification can be changed on the fly so scans of larger volumes at a lower resolution can be done to detect interesting features, with a subsequent focus on higher magnification (higher resolution) to learn more about those features.

How long did it take from the beginning of the idea of wanting to acquire this machine to successfully being awarded to acquire it?

Success in these large grants requires persistence and proposals that get people excited. We submitted the proposal four times. In the first two times, the proposal was technically sound but not exciting enough to be competitive. Once we realized this sticking point we focused on building our regional and National collaborations, eventually receiving over 50 support letters from around the country.  Once we made those connections, the regional and National impact was made clear across applications in aerospace, structural, biological, and geological materials applications, to name a few.  I have been told that this is the first ‘Track 2’ (above $1.4M) NSF MRI award that Utah has led. Having learned from our early failures, we plan to capitalize on what we have learned through this process to bring more exciting instruments like this to the U.

When it comes to the possibility of students or faculty discovering new things using this X-ray microscope that our university has, how will this machine help accelerate the step-by-step process of research?

Prior to this award, faculty had to travel to one of a handful of places in the U.S., commonly called beamline facilities, which are massive facilities that enable similar acquisition capabilities. However, those resources are heavily utilized, and researchers are required to write proposals for access. If granted, travel to its location for an abbreviated study is required, which inherently restricts the impact of these exciting methods. With the Versa at the U, researchers now have a lab-scale surrogate for beamline resources which enables more widespread, inclusive adoption of exciting experimental studies which help accelerate materials development.  An exciting impact is that this accessibility will increase the quantity of data provided available, which will be leveraged by the researchers to advance a new frontier for data analytics and machine learning applications in materials research.

In other words, more observations not only open the door for discovery, but the one thing that we’re really excited about is by being able to acquire more data to start leveraging data science methods and collaborating with, say, folks in the computer science department to bring new methods like machine learning and artificial intelligence to these studies. The other maybe more seemingly intangible, but very important possibility, is that this instrument will help the U build collaborations around the country and increase our impact.

What are some of the ideas or projects in mind when it comes to the Versa 620 and how it can help promote research among young students, in particular, help promote STEM education and have students at a younger age be more involved with what this machine can do?

One of our goals for the next year is to create an inter-high school competition which will mimic the scientific process. So, phase one of the competition would be like a propsal phase during which Utah faculty would pose an open question and students would propose what should be scanned and how the data should be analyzed. Phase two would include the students receiving those data, analyzing it using their own creative process, and describing what they were able to learn.  I am also working closely with the STEMCAP group at the U, who help open the exciting world of STEM to youth-in-custody students.  This fall, we will be hosting a virtual tour (via Zoom) of the new X-ray microscope to students in that program.

As a researcher, and as an educator, just how exciting is it to have this device, to be able to share it with students and just be a part of this? It’s definitely got to be high up there in the list of personal accomplishments to be able to be a part of this, correct?

You know, using it as a scientific tool is great. It helps us learn new things and develop new products across a broad range of applications. But in the end, the reason why we’re at the U is because we like to make an impact. I’ve been at the U for five years, and before that, I was at NASA for ten. Ultimately, I came to the U because I wanted to be closer to the impact on our future generations of scientists and engineers. With that in mind, getting students excited about the future of materials research and providing this new level of insight into material behavior is priceless.

To watch the Versa 620 in action, click here.

More information on the Utah Nanofab can be found here.