South Dakota Mines peering deeper than ever with new atomic microscope
To solve the big problems, sometimes, you need to think micro. A new microscope at South Dakota Mines allows researchers to go deeper than ever before – and could change the materials you use daily.
The new atomic force infrared microscope has Mines researchers peering deeper than anyone else in the region. It’s so sensitive it needs to be placed on a specialized rumble-resistant table.
Dr. Rajesh Sani, chemistry and biology professor, said it’s more than just another piece of equipment.
“I’m so excited about that. We have like, 100, 200, or 500 cells, and we don’t have any nano-IR tree in the state of South Dakota – this is the only machine," Sani said. "I don’t think we have one in the Chicago area too. It will not only help my projects, but the whole state.”
For example, the microscope could be used to turn unprocessed crops like corn into something far beyond what you’d find on the dinner table - bioplastics.
“You put a (raw) plastic in the field, and it degrades a little bit and releases microplastics into the environment which is very bad," Sani said. "The idea is – can we take the bioplastics which we are making and put it there so it will degrade and not effect the environment? We can take a picture and then scan it and see how many bacterial cells have that biopolymer.”
Sani estimated a bioplastic processed from that corn could go for hundreds of dollars more per ton than the raw commodity.
While that makes for a viable economic investment, Sani says solutions are needed now for the persistent environmental issue of plastic waste.
“Plastics are like diamonds, they are forever and they don’t go anywhere and it’s very hard to degrade," Sani said. "There’s an awful need for a bioplastic, but this machine can answer that question, how the attachment is going on onto the materials, and how the bacteria is expressing the proteins.”
Funding for the near-$700,000 microscope was provided by a National Science Foundation award.