Skip to Main Content

UMass Lowell will resume on-campus instruction, research and campus life for Fall 2020. View the plan for more info.

University Acquires State-of-the-Art Electron Microscope

Purchase Funded by $1.15M Grant From NSF

UMass Lowell’s brand-new Auriga focused ion-beam scanning electron microscope made by Carl Zeiss is located at the Materials Characterization Laboratory on the North Campus.


Edwin L. Aguirre

A brand-new, state-of-the art microscope is further separating UMass Lowell from its peers.

The Auriga focused ion-beam scanning electron microscope (FIB-SEM), manufactured by German optics leader Carl Zeiss, will greatly enhance the University’s research capabilities in the areas of nano materials and biological sciences.

“This Zeiss FIB-SEM system can resolve details as tiny as one nanometer, or a billionth of a meter, and magnify views up to a million times,” says Earl Ada, Ph.D., who manages the Campus Materials Characterization Laboratory, where the microscope is located.

“It offers the highest resolution in scanning electron microscopy today,” he says. “UMass Lowell is one of only a handful of educational institutions in the Northeast that has this advanced capability.”

The purchase of the $1.3 million microscope was made possible by a $1.15 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The University shouldered the rest of the cost.

The Zeiss unit boosts the total number of electron microscopes on campus from five to eight. This includes three transmission electron microscopes, two field-emission microscopes, two conventional scanning electron microscopes and the new FIB-SEM.

Electrical engineering Asst. Prof. Xingwei Wang is the principal investigator (PI) for the NSF project proposal, along with Profs. David Kazmer, Carol Barry and Mengyan Shen and Earl Ada as co-PIs.

From Polymers to Bacteria

The Zeiss FIB-SEM system uses a combination of an electron gun and an ion gun for high-resolution, high-contrast imaging of secondary and backscattered electrons as well as for processing organic and inorganic samples in the vacuum chamber.

“The focused ion beam can mill or etch surfaces down to a line width of less than 2.5 nanometers to create patterns or structures,” says Ada. “It can also perform microsurgery on samples, cutting them out or slicing them into extremely thin sections to reveal their internal makeup.”

The equipment comes with a gas-injection system for depositing thin films of metals and dielectrics on the samples. It also has an omniprobe for physically and electrically manipulating the samples. Moreover, by automatically combining several images, a complete 3-D model of the sample can be created.

Applications of this cutting-edge technology include research in metallic systems, metal oxide semiconductors, polymers with nanomaterials and biological systems, to name a few.

“Our Zeiss system comes with a liquid-nitrogen-cooled cryogenic stage made by Leica so we can process hydrated samples such as tissues, cells, yeast, bacteria and even viruses,” says Ada.

“The microscope will provide UMass Lowell researchers and industrial collaborators access to high-quality instrumentation as well as enhance the educational and research opportunities of undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students in the lab,” he says. “Mr. Christopher Santeufemio, a staff member in the Materials Characterization Lab, is the lead FIB-SEM microscopist in charge of developing processing and imaging protocols for internal UMass Lowell users and external collaborators.”

The focused ion beam’s precision and resolution is demonstrated in this view of the UMass Lowell Riverhawks logo, magnified 10,480 times, which was etched by the ion beam onto a silicon wafer. The logo measures 24 microns (0.024 millimeter) wide.
This cross-section of a silica substrate, magnified 16,550 times, was made by the focused ion beam to reveal the subsurface morphology of the spike-like nanostructures created on the silica surface using a high-powered femtosecond laser. The tallest spikes are about a micron high.