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BOYS UNT TOYS: Dr. David Pattison, right, and Dr. Robert Marr proudly demonstrate the capacities of the ultra-expensive, brand-new superprobe microanalyzer.
Aaron Whitfield/The Gauntlet

Microanalyzer means megafun

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Though few University of Calgary students dream of ever seeing an electron superprobe microanalyser, those who do are one step closer to a dream come true.

Such a device is the latest addition to the technological arsenal of the U of C Department of Geology and Geophysics.

"Essentially, this machine puts the university at the forefront of technology,"said Dr. Pattison, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and supervisor of the facility that houses the microanalyzer.  "This machine is the newest and best in its category and the only machine of its calibre in North America. In combination with the electron microscopes recently purchased by the Health Sciences Department, the addition of the probe gives the university full coverage of the vast array of electron beam technology."

The Japan Electron Optics Laboratory JXA-8200 electron probe microanalyzer is a special type of scanning electron microscope. Devices in this "family" are microscopes that use a electron beam rather than light beams to illuminate a sample. As electron wavelengths are lower than those of light packets, images of a far higher precision can be obtained.

The distinguishing characteristic of the microanalyzer is the ability to perform complex chemical analyses of samples through the use of an array of spectrophotometers. When a fast-moving electron strikes an atom in a sample, the low levels of the atom's electrons are disrupted. As nature favours the lowest possible energy state, particles rearrange themselves, emitting radiation. Since every substance emits a characteristic wavelength of light, the microanalyzer is able to determine the specific constituents of a sample.

Although the machine is housed in the Earth Sciences building, its use is not limited to Geology. The facility will be used for various purposes in many other fields: concrete degeneration in Civil Engineering, mineralogical "fingerprinting" of artifacts in Archaeology, analysis of teeth and bones in Anthropology, and study of pipeline corrosion in the Engineering industry. Researchers and undergraduate students alike will have access to the microanalyser.

"One of the original intentions was the device should be made readily available to all members of the university community, including undergraduate students," said Pattison. "The device will be used in several undergraduate-level research projects and perhaps we will be able to offer demonstrations to students who would otherwise be unable to experience electron microscopy, rather than simply studying it from a textbook."

The project bears an overall price tag of $1.3 million, and its funding was obtained by a large group of researchers headed by Dr. Pattison. Several groups helped to foot the bill including the provincial and federal governments, the universitys and a number of private investors. The proposal garnered federal support by placing in the top five per cent of the inaugural Canadian Foundation for Innovation competition.

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