It's a small, small, small, small world.

Jun 6, 2005

Having an environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) on campus has allowed Kettering and industry researchers to "get down" to the subatomic level.

Three years after it arrived on campus, the environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) has made a big impact in lots of tiny ways - most of them related to faculty and student research projects.

Dr. Trevor Harding, associate professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering and Business at Kettering, initiated the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $299,867 that enabled the University to purchase the ESEM to support undergraduate education and promote scientific research at the undergraduate and master's level.

The ESEM also promotes a greater degree of cross-disciplinary research. Currently the ESEM laboratory, directed by Harding, is a collaborative effort between faculty and staff from engineering, physics and chemistry disciplines. Because the ESEM lab is a collaborative effort, the lab has benefited greatly from the shared expertise of users and support staff and there has been considerable cross-pollination of research ideas and activities.

"Having the ESEM at Kettering University has made a tremendous impact in terms of increased opportunities for students to interact with cutting-edge research equipment, enhancing the capability of faculty to attract research grants, and making outreach programs more engaging for visitors of all ages," said Harding. "We are fortunate to have the support of the University, the National Science Foundation, industry and alumni to make this laboratory a reality.

"Perhaps one of the most important impacts of the ESEM lab has been the synergy in materials characterization created by the lab," said Bahram Roughani, professor of Applied Physics, "leading to faculty collaborations that improve the research/teaching infrastructure and enhance collaborations across different degree programs in our campus."

Kettering's ESEM combines high vacuum, low vacuum and gaseous environment operations to support a range of applications. So far it has helped researchers and students examine the shape of carbon nanotubes, nano-scale wave guides, the topography of metallic fractures, failed orthopaedic implants and the diffusion characteristics of different metals.

Unlike conventional scanning electron microscopes (SEM), which only allow users to examine samples in a high vacuum environment, the ESEM removes the high vacuum restraint of the sample environment. This allows researchers to study wet, oily, dirty, non-conductive specimens like leaves, brain tissue and non-metallic materials in their natural states without modification.

In addition, the scanning capability of the ESEM inspects the surface of objects and immediately records data digitally, aiding researchers in quickly identifying their findings and sharing these with other researchers around the world.

"This ESEM offers extraordinary advantages because of its flexibility," said Harding. "We can use it for biological, health, automotive, electronic and aerospace research to name just a few of its applications. And it's a great tool in terms of education because we can see the complete image of what we're examining on the computer screen, which gets students excited about engineering and science."

Faculty members can now conduct research in materials characterization, bring their research results into the classroom and supplement course work with real experiments to help students actually see what is explained in their textbooks.

Examples of projects using the ESEM at Kettering include:

    Observing the wear between the ace tubular cup and femoral head on an artificial hip to determine the level of deterioration, which help manufacturers create longer lasting replacement hips for patients; Investigation of the creation of carbon nanotubes using silicon wafer substrate and laser vaporization, as part of the Senior Research Applied Physics course; Characterization of nano-scale wave guides made by laser sintering of specialized glass; Increased understanding of the micro-structural evolution of lead-free solder joints during high temperature thermal fatigue; Examination of the fracture surfaces of metal samples after tensile and/or impact testing.

Harding explained that this kind of intensive application is typically reserved for doctoral students at major research universities, but because the ESEM uses a computer-based interface between user and computer, students are able to learn how to operate the instrument in minutes, facilitating complex research projects and in-depth laboratory experiences.

The ESEM is also used extensively by outside firms for conducting their own research and development. Industry users include automotive parts suppliers, circuit board developers and medical device manufacturers. The ESEM's capabilities has been instrumental in helping these companies to resolve manufacturing problems, solve customer warranty issues and develop new materials and designs.

In addition to enhancing the Kettering curriculum, the ESEM allows the University to expand outreach opportunities with local middle and high school science teachers and students, community colleges and the Institute for the National Science Foundation summer workshops. Two recent visits to the lab include 100 fourth, fifth and sixth graders participating in the Young Inventors Fair and 40 eighth graders from St. John Vianney Catholic School in Flint.

In-house outreach includes the University's Kamp Kettering and 21st Century Woman pre-college programs, providing hands-on science and engineering activities for girls. More than 125 junior high and high school-aged girls have had a chance to examine human hair, pollen and insects at a microscopic level, and analyze aluminum castings for automotive applications in the ESEM lab. Each of the young women who participated in these programs was given an opportunity to operate the microscope while examining their sample.

Kettering also hosted an NSF summer workshop associated with the Center for Workshops in the Chemical Sciences in 2003, providing hands-on demonstrations of surface analysis utilizing the ESEM and other labs on campus. A similar workshop is planned for this summer.

"Because the ESEM gives students and researchers a chance to view a specimen in complete detail on the computer screen, this makes the study of science and engineering more interesting," Harding said.

In addition to the NSF grant enabling the purchase of the ESEM, Kettering provided significant support for the lab. The University matched the NSF grant with funds in excess of $85,000, that were used to renovate laboratory and attached classroom space, and integration of computer networking for the area.

To learn more about Kettering's environmental scanning electron microscope, contact Trevor Harding at (810) 762-9811, or via e-mail at

Written by Dawn Hibbard and Gary J. Erwin
810-762-9865 or 810-762-9538 or