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New device will probe the world of the atom

September 21, 2007

New device will probe the world of the atom

Four professors over at Rieke are still pinching themselves.

After applying for a National Science Foundation grant in January, on a hope and a prayer really, the chemistry faculty found out last year that they had been awarded a grant totaling $743,000 to purchase a powerful nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.

“We were floored when we learned we had received it,” Fryhle said. “We didn’t expect to get it the very first time (we applied). And we didn’t expect to get the money that would let us buy something this powerful.”

This grant comes on the heels of another grant from the NSF in early 2007, where the department received $181,000 to buy an atomic force microscope.

The spectrometer itself, which arrived this spring, is not much to look at – even the enthusiastic team of professors Craig Fryhle, Dean Waldow, Myriam Cotten and Neal Yakelis admit this. It looks, from the photographs, like a rather large thermos surrounded by wires that snake over to a computer. The paperwork that the spectrometer will spit out after analyzing liquids or solids doesn’t reveal much to the untrained eye.

However, to the scientists, both the spectrometer and the readouts will help them look inside molecules, figure out how they interact with each other and on a more basic scale, help them decipher the compound they are looking at.

“It’s not really something that lets you see the molecule,” Fryhle said. “But it gives inference what’s going on around it.”

The spectrometer contains a series of chambers, with the outside chamber forming a vacuum jacket. The next chamber is then filled with liquid nitrogen, which is at a temperature of minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside the chamber, a superconducting magnet sits in a broth of liquid helium, which is even colder, at minus 452 degrees Fahrenheit. The magnet is charged with electricity, which aligns the spins of the nuclei in a sample, and thereby allows the sample to be studied.

“The nuclear spins are oriented by a magnetic field and then radio frequency waves are emitted that can tell how atoms within a molecule are connected, as well many as other types of information,” said Waldow.

On a less technical level, this means that scientists and undergraduate students who will use the machine, will be able to learn about the polymer used to make a wing on a Boeing 787, Waldow added.

Pharmaceutical companies use these devices. So can biologists trying to discern what chemicals are in native plants.

“This is really what will become the crown jewel for the instruments in our department,” Waldow said.

The device will also be able to test samples in sequence overnight, and have the printed results ready for the researchers or the students in the morning. Currently, the task of studying samples involves a somewhat tedious, one-sample-at-a-time process that can take hours of waiting around.

Once the sample is scanned and the results are ready, the computer can then e-mail the researcher with the results, Waldow said.

Undergraduate students, who usually do not have access to such powerful equipment, will find that having used the spectrometer-one of the first of its kind located in a West Coast predominately undergraduate institution, such as PLU-will help them land future jobs, Fryhle said. The same holds true of some students in nearby community colleges that will have access to the machine.

“It will give them a leg up right from the start,” Waldow concurred.