Nova Scotia

Cape Breton University to install cryo-TEM microscope

Three researchers at Cape Breton University have been awarded $350,000 to buy and house a special piece of equipment called a cyro-TEM microscope.

Transmission electron microscope allows scientists to see things 10,000 times smaller than a hair

Matthias Bierenstiel, associate professor of inorganic chemistry, in his lab at Cape Breton University. (Cape Breton University)

Three researchers at Cape Breton University have been awarded $350,000 to buy and house a special piece of equipment called a cryo-TEM microscope.

The grant comes from the Canada Foundation for Innovation John R. Evans Leaders Fund.

The money has been awarded to Stephanie MacQuarrie, associate professor of organic chemistry, Matthias Bierenstiel, associate professor of inorganic chemistry, and Martin Mkandawire, industrial research chair in mine water management at the Verschuren Centre at CBU.

Bierenstiel said the transmission electron microscope allows scientists to see on the nanoscale.

"We can look with this instrument almost, resolution-wise, on the orders of atoms, and this makes it very, very powerful," he told CBC Cape Breton's Mainstreet.

Tiny and cold

The "cryo" in cryo-TEM alludes to deep cold. Liquid nitrogen at –196 C is used because it "holds everything tightly in place."

"Normally you would use just solid materials, but if you want to look at cells, polymers, and other materials, they kind of swim around and they wobble, and so if you can freeze that, you can now see it," Bierenstiel said.

He said the cryo-TEM microscope can be used for a range of research purposes and can look at things 10,000 times smaller than a hair.

"We can use it in nano-technology, we can use it in materials science, and that has very wide applications," he said, "Biomass conversion, membrane technology. You can make sensors for anti-cancer research."

The microscope doesn't actually exist yet, but will be built to the research team's specifications. 

'Dust is deadly'

At the same time, the equipment can't be set up just anywhere.

"Because we can look at such small objects on an atomic level, almost, any dust is deadly," Bierenstiel said. "So it has to be in a dust-free lab, called clean-room technology.

"We're actually going to build a lab within a lab with special filters that purify the air because any small speck of dust can actually cause big problems in analysis."

Bierentstiel said there are a handful of cryo-TEM microscopes in the country, and when the new one is delivered to CBU, it will become the first in Atlantic Canada.

With files from the CBC's Wendy Bergfeldt

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