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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carroll


Updated: Jun 12

Sustaining the research environment...

At most research intensive centers such as NanoteQ, there is an ongoing need to renew equipment, tools, capabilities. This "arms race" of technical enablement continues to get more and more expensive as older equipment types and models are replaced with newer ones. But many times the actual capability doesnt change - only the model number and the software that runs it. This can be seen in generations of electron microscopes for instance. Earliest TEMs quite limited; the noise in their power supplies, the precision of their lenses, etc. Then there was a jump in capabilities that came with higher voltages, better lenses, and better control systems: the JEOL 4000, the CM 30 for instance. during this era, most microscopes were pretty equivalent until the JEOL 2010F and its counter parts hit the market. There was a technological difference between these machines and those of the previous generation. Again, such a leap took place with the Titan and aberation correction. Each generation defined a capability, but within the generation only incremental advancements were made and they didnt actually enhance resolution or capability in the lab. Yet, plenty of microscopes were replaced within these generations during this time.

Our old Philips CM30 supertwin lens TEM (left) is no longer with us. But it was a great performer while it was...

The same can be said of a wide variety of laboratory tools: evaporators, plasma systems, even scanning probes. Replacing equipment with "the same equipment" that has a new coat of paint on it is fine if your university is large and is a member of a NSF sponsored consortium like the NNIN. Or perhaps you are a Cornell or Stanford where the university can use endowment residuals to buy a new microscope every year or so. However, it is a bit more of a struggle to keep up with the Jones' for the Vandys, Emorys, BCs, Dartmouths, Tufts, and Wakes of the world. Even the Dukes might do a double-take at the cost of this rat race. And yet such institutions represent a significant and important output of researchers and research in our nation. Indeed, one might hold, after a brief glance at the literature, that such places are an important part of the breadth of our scientific discussion, driving a level of nonconformity of ideas which is healthy in our research communities. So, how do they survive as costs go up and up?

So far, no one really knows. Living with a slightly older model of plasma cleaner is fine so long as the capability is still there, most would agree with this. Unfortunately as the race heats up, and federal dollars shrink in real terms, too many among us have decided that it is more important for large research institute X to get its fifteenth high resolution aberation corrected $10M TEM than for small but still active research institute Y to get its first AFM. You know, the science in both proposals is good, but the number of people served, the ability of the university to manage the instrument, the outreach component that lets five year olds at the local science museum image topological insulators while simultaneously doing EELS, and EDS in an online, haptic, virtual AI experience using JEOL's latest and greatest... We have all been on those panels and this has become a challenge at all but the largest centralized facilities. Incredibly, it would seem that the tendency of large funders like NSF to pile research center upon research center on a select few players among the universities is getting worse. The old phrase "the rich get richer" seems appropriate here. And, to be sure this isnt NSF's fault, afterall we scientists do make up the panels that advise them!

As for Wake's NanoteQ, a rather old solution is being adapted to address this issue - the machine shop. Here it is called the NanoteQ-Fabrik or the NanoteQ factory because we like catchy names. Disappearing from many college campuses now, these shops used to be an essential component in the design and construction of laboratory equipment. (For the younger reader, back in the day, not everything could be purchased from the Thermo-fisher-philips-oxford-VW-Omicron science super-conglomerate) Our approach is to use our machine shop and electronics shop to back engineer and upgrade within a specific generation of a tool, allowing us updated access to the capabilities of that tool until it must be replaced with different capabilities - not just different software. This life-extension program can be seen in many places throughout our Center today - from the upgrades on our 2010F to the MJB3 mask aligners we use for larger lithography features. All enhanced with digital this and that, but with the same capabilities within the best of their generation. Equipment, of course, still has to be replaced, but not as such a frentic rate. Money still must be raised, but we have a little longer to do that.

So, bring back the machine shop. It may not be the solution to the growing disparity in research wealth and narrowing of research perspective that is being driven by today's funding decisions, but at least it can keep smaller research universities such as ours relevant and "in the game." And that will be good for science.

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