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UTSA acquires world's most advanced electron microscope
January 23, 2009

By Melissa Ludwig - Express-News

JEOL, maker of the world's most advanced electron microscope, has built only one — a demo model that sits in the company's factory in Japan. The second will be here, housed at the University of Texas at San Antonio's advanced microscopy laboratory.

Thanks to a $1.2 million gift from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation — heirs to the mighty King Ranch fortune — UTSA is purchasing the powerful microscope to aid breakthroughs in cancer therapy, electronics and solar panels and will invite scientists from all over the world to use the new tool.

According to Miguel Yacaman, a world-renowned researcher who heads up UTSA's physics and astronomy department, the microscope could unlock mysteries at the atomic level the same way telescopes such as the Hubble opened up the universe to astronomers.

“This microscope is like ‘Field of Dreams,'” Yacaman said, referring to the 1989 movie in which an Iowa corn farmer builds a baseball diamond and the ghosts of baseball greats of the past come to play.

“We build the field so they will come to play. A lot of researchers will be interested in coming to join UTSA and will help UTSA to become a premier university and compete with our friends at Austin.”

Yacaman was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin before coming to UTSA about a year ago.

Known as a second-generation aberration corrected electron microscope, the tool can produce crisp images of particles smaller than an atom, Yacaman said.

Typically, electron microscopes produce a slightly distorted image, almost like funhouse mirrors. Newer models correct the distortion, but the second-generation is the microscope built from the ground up with that correction technology in mind, producing better images of even tinier particles.

“This is the most advanced electron microscope on the market,” said Tom Isabell, JEOL's product manager for transmission electron microscopes.

With the microscope, scientists can study how human tissue is affected by photothermal therapy, an experimental treatment that uses lasers to heat nanoparticles and destroy cancer cells, Yacaman said. It's a more localized approach, and could erase side effects caused by chemotherapy and radiation.

The microscope also is used to study materials such as zinc oxide for use in electronics and solar panels. Commonly used for diaper rash cream, scientists think the material could serve as a cheaper replacement for pricey silicon crystals, bringing down the cost of production, Yacaman said.

The microscope will take six months to build and three months to install, Once it's up and running in October, scientists from around the world are invited to come use the microscope, or to send samples to UTSA and conduct experiments remotely without leaving their laboratories.

The university will charge for labor and materials, but won't make a profit, Yacaman said.

Combined with three other electron microscopes purchased with an $822,000 gift from the Kleberg Foundation, the new tool will make the UTSA department the “No. 1 facility at any university in the United States,” Yacaman said.

Donald Paul, a professor of chemical engineering at UT-Austin, agreed. Paul is a former colleague of Yacaman's, and said he and Yacaman talked about getting a microscope at UT but did not have the money. When Yacaman left UT, it no longer had the expertise either, Paul said.

“It is certainly going to be a lot of visibility for” UTSA, Paul said. “My congratulations to him. It is a very good thing for all of us.”

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