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Equipment grant will further KU's efforts in materials engineering

Thursday, October 16, 2014

LAWRENCE — Increased durability for dental fillings. Genetically engineered tissues that seamlessly integrate with the body. Improved methods for oil extraction. Better catalysts for fuel cells and chemicals and fuels production. These are just a few of the scientific advances that will be possible at the University of Kansas through a $650,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The grant will fund the purchase of a machine that can provide a detailed map of the chemical properties and elemental makeup of the outermost surface – down to the top two or three atomic layers – of any given material. The method is known as Advanced X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy (XPS), which lets researchers look at a material’s surface atoms and their oxidation states – a measure of their combining power with other atoms – and study how these properties help the material catalyze a reaction, bond with another material or interact with a tissue.

“The XPS system will provide researchers at KU with additional, vital chemical information that we cannot get with existing techniques on campus,” said Trung Van Nguyen, professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, who helped secure the NSF grant for the equipment. “If I have a material, a copper alloy for instance – with the same bulk composition but potentially different surface compositions – and one is active but the other is not active for the chemical reaction I want, this device will tell me precisely what is on the surface of the active material that makes it active. It makes research much more efficient.”

The new equipment will be housed in the School of Engineering’s new main campus building when it opens in 2015. Researchers from chemical engineering, physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, microscopy and analytical imaging, petroleum engineering and bioengineering are all expected to directly benefit from the acquisition of the XPS system. KU engineers and scientists previously had to travel offcampus to conduct this type of materials testing.

“This system allows for overall improvements to our approach to research, which will make us more competitive in our respective fields,” Nguyen said.

In addition to the convenience of having the instrument on campus for research, it can also serve as an educational tool for graduate and undergraduate students – and not just those from KU.

“We can make the system available to students during downtime, so it won’t just be for research, but for education as well,” Nguyen said. “We’re excited by another aspect of our proposal that includes reaching out to under-represented students from nearby colleges and allowing them free access to this equipment.”

The request to NSF showcased the potential benefits to research at KU by stating that 19 users identified in the proposal have participated in 158 projects valued close to $62 million in the past five years.

“This will benefit a lot of researchers in a wide variety of fields. It’s a major addition to campus,” Nguyen said. 

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