The University of the Free State (UFS) is installing a state-of-the-art microscopy equipment worth R65 million to enhance its capacity in conducting high value materials research. This will not only inspire excellence but will also set the university apart from its peers in conducting research.
The project will also help the institution to promote research in, among others, the fields of chemistry, physics, microbiology, geology, plant sciences, zoology, and cardiothoracic surgery, but it will also increase the number of research articles published.
Department of physics and director of the centre for microscopy Professor Koos Terblans explained that the purchased equipment includes a high-resolution transmission electron microscope (HRTEM), a scanning electron microscope (SEM), and a focused ion beam secondary electron microscope. He said the equipment will be installed in phases and will take between three and six months to complete.
Terblans further indicated that the biggest component of the instrument, the HRTEM, allows for direct imaging of the atomic structure of samples. This powerful tool will allow researchers to study the properties of materials on an atomic scale. It will for instance, be used to study nanoparticles, semiconductors, metals, and biological material, he said.
The instrument will also be used to optimise heat treatment of materials, as it can heat the sample up to 1000 °C while recording live images of the sample. “With this apparatus, the UFS is the only institution in South Africa that can perform this function,” Terblans said.
He said in preparation for the installation of the equipment, they had to dig a hole of 2 m deep in a special room where the machine was to stand. The machine was then mounted on a solid concrete block (4 m x 3 m x 2 m) in order to minimise vibration. The instrument also acquired a special air conditioner that minimises the movement of air in the room, he added.
The focused ion-beam secondary electron microscope that was purchased is used together with the HRTEM. It is used to cut out samples on a microscopic level to place inside the HRTEM, Terblans further explained. He said proudly that having access to both the HRTEM and the ion-beam secondary electron microscope puts the UFS at the forefront of research in the country.
According to Terblans, the third component of the machine acquired, the SEM – which is an electron microscope – allows researchers to produce images of a sample by scanning the surface of the sample with a focused beam of electrons. This machine will be used to serve researchers in the biology field with high-resolution SEM photos, he added.
The UFS Centre for Microscopy is not just a boon to the UFS researchers, but researchers from other institutions such as the Central University of Technology, the national museum, and other research facilities, can also access it.