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Appalachian professors receive $380,000 NSF grant to facilitate nanoscience research

Coffey_Russell_t.jpgBOONE—Tonya Coffey and Phil Russell have received more than $380,000 from the National Science Foundation to purchase two atomic force microscopes (AFM) that will facilitate nanoscience education, research and outreach at Appalachian State University.

Coffey is an assistant professor and Russell is a professor in Appalachian’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. They conduct research on the nanoscale studying surface friction and surface roughness of fluids, and the surface of solar cells, semi-conductors and photo sensors.

TonyaCoffeyPhilRussell_t2.jpgTonya Coffey, left, and Phil Russell have been awarded $380,000 from the National Science Foundation to purchase two atomic force microscopes. The microscopes will enhance nanoscience education, research and outreach. Coffey and Russell are faculty members in Appalachian State University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. They are pictured in the department’s scanning electron microscope training and research lab. (Photo by University Photographer Marie Freeman)

They will also use the AFM for lab-scale nanofabrication and nanolithography. Russell has more than 20 years of AFM research experience dating to the design and construction of AFMS in the 1980s.

One microscope is a research-grade instrument that will help enhance Appalachian’s research community. “We have a lot of research collaborations on campus that will benefit from this instrument,” Coffey said.

For instance, Larry Kimball, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, will use the microscope to study the wear patterns of pre-historic tools he has collected from archeological sites in Russia dating between 100,000 and 28,000 years ago and tools uncovered in the southern Appalachian region dating between 6,000 B.C. to 500 A.D.

Jeff Ramsdell, an associate professor in the Department of Technology, will use the microscope to analyze adhesives and polymers used in the construction industry.

Local industries also are interested in using the microscope to analyze materials such as tapes, wire and cable products, Coffey said. “There are all kinds of things you can do with this scope.”

The second microscope is a portable AFM that can be taken to area high schools and used during summer enrichment camps for high school students, and in university classrooms for demonstrations

Russell says the portable AFM will be used to introduce area school students to nanoscience and raise their interest in science in general.

He offered this comparison to help illustrate how small materials at the nanoscale are. “The weight of a standard apple is about one newton. We are looking at 10 to the negative 12, or one trillionth the mass of an apple,” he said. “We will use this as a hook to get students more interested in science and give teachers the opportunity to have a state of the art piece of equipment in their classrooms.”

He said the portable AFM is similar to one that was designed for the Mars lander Phoenix.

There is a growing need for individuals with skills in nanotechnology.

“It has been estimated that there will be about 10 million jobs in nanotechnology related fields by 2014,” Coffey said. “We need to prepare our students for this new job market. That means making the tools used to study nanotechnology available to our students, and training them to use them. There is also demand for products that will come from advances in nanotechnology, such as faster computers, faster communications, more space travel and better medicine. These new products will all come from advances in nanotechnology.”

The microscopes will be configured especially for Appalachian. The professors hope to have both microscopes in operation by spring semester 2009.