posted June 26, 2003

Major NSF Grant for Particle Accelerator

A major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide Hope College with a major resource for joint student-faculty research across multiple departments, and puts the college in rare company that includes national research laboratories.

The college has received $660,000 from the NSF for a Pelletron particle accelerator and attached microprobe facility for materials analysis. The instrument will support research projects ranging from the analysis of dinosaur bones, to the development of a way to find the glucose level in blood, to testing for lake pollution.

To put the magnitude of the grant into perspective, the NSF Physics Directorate has awarded on average about $3 million per year for each of the past five years as part of its Major Research Instrumentation program. The majority of the awards go to major research universities. The Hope College grant this year represents more than a fifth of the average amount awarded in a typical year.

The award is the largest grant for scientific equipment in Hope's history.

Only a few dozen institutions worldwide have comparable equipment, according to project director Dr. Graham Peaslee. It's a select group that includes Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the U.S. Navy's Naval Surface Warfare Center, among others. The only other undergraduate schools to have had accelerators manufactured by Hope's vendor -- the National Electrostatics Corporation, which Peaslee said is the only U.S. manufacturer -- are Connecticut College and Union College in New York.

"This is an affirmation of the quality of research that goes on at Hope, and the trust that the NSF has in Hope as an institution of major importance in the integration of teaching and research," said Dr. James Gentile, who is the dean for the natural sciences and the Kenneth G. Herrick Professor of Biology at Hope.

"It is also a tremendous affirmation of the faculty team that put this proposal together," he said. "It demonstrates to all that we have quality individuals working collaboratively at the interface of disciplines on cutting- edge studies. This is what science at Hope is all about: research teams of faculty and students using the most up-to- date instrumentation available to answer today's scientific questions while simultaneously preparing students to answer those that will arise tomorrow."

The accelerator will provide beams of protons and helium nuclei at energies of several million electron volts. The attached microprobe is a magnetic lens system that will focus the particle beams down to very small (10-micron) sizes. The beams will then be directed onto the surface of various materials for analysis. The x-rays or scattered beam particles that result from such a bombardment can be used to determine properties of the "target" materials. The beam analysis techniques are non-destructive usually and provide quantitative information about the elemental composition and thickness of the materials studied.

The departments involved include physics, chemistry, and the geological and environmental sciences. All of the projects are being led by members of the Hope faculty and conducted in collaboration with Hope students, Peaslee said.

"Biology, chemistry and environmental science are all mixed into one, and using what is traditionally considered a physics instrument," he said. "This is a multi-pronged approach that works very well at an undergraduate institution--and the students will be doing the work on this sophisticated instrument."

Peaslee noted that a trend internationally in science as a field is for experts from multiple disciplines to become involved in research questions, since each area can contribute different skills to the process. Undergraduate schools, he said, because of their smaller scale have the flexibility to adapt this model in their teaching. Hope has even designed its new science center with multi-discipline connections in mind.

In addition to Peaslee, the faculty members who helped craft the grant proposal are Dr. Brian Bodenbender, associate professor of geology and environmental science; Dr. Kenneth Brown, assistant professor of chemistry; Dr. Paul DeYoung, professor of physics and chairperson of the department; Dr. Mark Little, assistant professor of physics; and Dr. Michael Pikaart, assistant professor of chemistry.

Bodenbender will study the chemical surroundings of dinosaur bones between the time of their death and their discovery as fossils. The process can help show whether or not the bones had always been at one site or had been moved from elsewhere.

Brown will use the instrument as he seeks to develop electrochemical sensors, such as the one he proposes to determine glucose level in blood. The work could ultimately help researchers develop a test that doesn't involve drawing blood.

Little is examining the qualities of new types of thin films. He believes that the materials developed in his lab may have potential for use in the next generation of electronic materials.

Peaslee will use the accelerator to test for metals (typically pollutants) in the sediment of local lakes. The beam analysis technique developed at Hope, he noted, is safer, faster and more reliable than the current acid digestion methods.

Pikaart is interested in developing a new method to quantify the amount of protein present in his gel electrophoresis experiments. Gel electrophoresis experiments are widely used in biochemistry to address protein structure and function, but reliable quantification is impossible in most experiments to date.

In addition to the campus-based research projects, Peaslee also anticipates that Hope will be able to provide greater assistance to area manufacturers with materials analysis needs.

The accelerator, which is being custom-built for the college, will be installed on the ground level of VanderWerf Hall and should be ready for use by the summer of 2004. The new instrument will enable the college to retire its 30-year-old Van de Graaff accelerator, which given its vintage can conduct tests with only a fraction of the new equipment's precision, according to Peaslee. He noted that the new projects wouldn't be possible using the older machine.