Science from a Distance

Article excerpt

The technology for conducting collaborative research between geographically dispersed team members is getting better, but it isn't yet really "like being there."

At the Ford Research Laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan, Chaitanya Narula is trying to find new catalysts to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from diesel engine exhausts. His strategy is to take the best catalyst, platinum; form it into minute clusters; and attach these uniformly to support particles (in this case, titanium dioxide). Ford's facilities can be used for making and joining the clusters and their support particles, but not for characterizing their individual sizes and pattern of joining. Yet the individual sizes and joining pattern are of critical importance to turning Narula's concept into a viable commercial product.

Fortunately for Narula's research, Ford has entered an agreement that permits its researchers to gain remote access to advanced microscopes at three national laboratories and a major research university, which are joined in the DOE2000 Materials Microcharacterization Collaboratory (MMC). Narula could therefore send the sample to the High Temperature Materials Laboratory at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to be examined on one of its world-class electron microscopes.

From his office in Michigan, Narula used his personal computer (PC) to connect to the Oak Ridge microscope and examined the sample while the ORNL microscopy experts gave advice. Both the platinum clusters at 2-5 nanometers (2-5 millionths of a millimeter) and the titanium dioxide particles at 20-50 nanometers (nm) were too big, and the platinum wasn't distributed uniformly. So it was back to the drawing board.

Narula tried a different processing technique and sent a new sample to ORNL within a week. With high expectations, the Ford and ORNL researchers examined the new samples together across the Internet. In the new sample, the platinum clusters were only 0.5-1 nm in diameter and were uniformly distributed on titanium dioxide particles that were 5-10 nm in diameter. But were the clusters attached to the particles really platinum?

The sample was sent to Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), another member of the MMC. With the help of the Advanced Analytical Electron Microscope (AAEM) at ANL and a three-way telepresence session, researchers confirmed that the particles were indeed platinum.

Everbody's doing it-but differently

At the Microscopy and Microanalysis annual meeting in Atlanta in July, thousands of microscopists gathered to share their research results. Among the many meetings, one was an allday session on telepresence microscopy--a session in which more than a dozen sites, ranging from the five MMC sites to Cambridge University in England and Osaka University in Japan, made their microscopes available across the Internet.

At least one microscope manufacturer already provides support to its users by operating its microscopes remotely across the Internet. Other manufacturers are rapidly enabling full remote operations for their machines as well.

Many instruments are used for remote education in addition to remote research. Schools with out microscopes, for example, can train students in their use at a distance. If the screen of a microscope's controlling computer is projected, a whole class can observe an image from a microscope at once. Electron microscopy is now even being introduced to students at the elementary and middle school levels.

At the conference, I was struck by the fact that almost all of the remote microscopy approaches are done in a different manner. If everyone were doing it the same way, telepresence microscopy would be a done deal. In his talk, John Hunt of Gatan Inc. said, "Remote instrumentation is a very young field. We aren't sure what we want yet." In the past year, at least three manufacturers have changed their approach to remote control as a result of interactions with the MMC. …