The Tool to Empower

Analytical and Diagnostics
Laboratory is vital tool
in research development

By Brett Vermilyea

Housed amid Binghamton University’s Small Scale Systems Integration and Packaging Center, the Analytical and Diagnostics Laboratory (ADL) with its white floor tiles and white ceiling with exposed ductwork, looks like one of the cleanest places in the state.

The nearly five-dozen work surfaces are covered with the shine of smudge-free chrome. And the brushed steel of powerful machines intensifies the sanitary image. Permeating the room is a constant dull hum, reminding visitors of the work being churned out by high-tech instruments with names such as X-ray Photoelectron Spectrometer, Laser Doppler Vibrometer and Spectroscopic Ellipsometer.

The ADL is one of the most powerful labs in the region. Built with a $21 million High Technology Commercialization award from New York state in 2007, it houses microscopes so powerful it can analyze down to the first few atomic layers of materials.

“Everyone who comes to the lab is awed by finding so much state-of-the-art high-tech equipment in one place,” says ADL research scientist Anju Sharma.

One of the regular users is Yu Du, a senior scientist at NanoMas Technologies Inc., a local start-up company that uses the ADL almost daily to perfect its products for printed electronics such as radio frequency identification tags, flexible printed circuit boards and printed solar cells.

“Because we are working on nanomaterial development, we need many advanced analytical tools that can provide very precise measurements,” Du says. “The ADL provides us with a very good platform for our research and development because it covers almost everything from the basic rheometer to dedicated instruments like a scanning electron microscope and transmission electron microscope.”

In an emerging printed electronics industry looking for cost-effective ways to mass-produce nanoscale engineering, the ability to print and measure so accurately gives NanoMas a competitive edge.

“The way the lab is set up, it definitely helps us to work more efficiently and make progress more quickly,” Du says. “It’s very nice for a start-up company like ours.”

It may come as a surprise that Binghamton University provides lab time to private companies to conduct private research, but lab manager Larry Lehman says the cooperation serves the public in a variety of ways. Companies use the ADL to analyze products on an atomic level to ensure that they’re free of defects, which not only makes them safer but also gives companies in the Southern Tier a market advantage. And that’s good for the local economy.

“The value to companies comes down to keeping jobs,” Lehman says. “By being competitive, they can keep more jobs.”

The lab also helps keep companies’ costs down. “[They] don’t need to go out and buy these machines,” Sharma says. “Some of them cost over $1 million.” On top of that there’s the infrastructure to house them, the manpower to maintain them and, of course, the people to run them. Some of the machines are so specialized they require someone with a PhD to understand the process. And that kind of specialization doesn’t come cheaply.

The ADL also levels the playing field for smaller companies and start-ups by providing them access — from anywhere — to its 54 analytical machines and 4-terabyte secure server.

“Smaller companies can find themselves at a disadvantage,” Lehman says. “They need to have some testing abilities at hand and, being small, they obviously can’t afford that. But through our lab they are a member of a consortium at Binghamton University — with access to the ADL and all of its testing capabilities — allowing them to bid on projects they might not be able to otherwise.”

But the ADL isn’t all business. It is first and foremost a University research facility. Its business relationships help to pay its costs. Non-member companies pay $20 to $550 per hour, depending on the machine, while member companies get substantial discounts. But the real value of the laboratory is the knowledge it creates.

“This is extremely specialized equipment,” says Sebastien Lacombe, assistant professor of anthropology.

Lacombe is excavating nearly 20,000-year-old stone tools in southwestern Europe to figure out the movement patterns of the people who made them. Rocks were often picked up in one area and transported to another to make weapons and tools. If he can figure out where the rocks originated, he can follow the paths of the nomadic people as they moved around the region and learn about their lives and culture.

“We are looking at elemental composition of the rock, trace elements,” Lacombe says. “It involves those specialized microscopes the ADL has because it requires high-end technology, which is not always so accessible. The ADL has such a wide range of equipment that will allow us to do the kind of analysis we need to do.”

“I consider myself very lucky because I have access to those microscopes,” Lacombe adds. “Actually, to have those microscopes on campus is a lifetime opportunity for me.”

Lacombe says working with ADL is a partnership of give and take. Soon he wants to buy a handheld X-ray fluorescence device that he can take into the field. But since his department will be using the tool on a limited basis, he is looking to share it with the ADL so other researchers can use it, an arrangement lab manager Lehman says is common.

“I’ve had faculty say, ‘We want to buy a new piece of equipment, and we would like to put it in the ADL rather than put it in our own lab,’” Lehman says. “One of the advantages of that is the infrastructure; we already have that. We have the staff to maintain the tool and to train others on how to use it. Another advantage is that it will be available to a wider variety of people, which makes it easier to justify from a grant proposal point of view because you are talking not just about yourself and your research group but about groups from across the University having access to the same tool. And that may lend a kinder view from the funding agency.”

And the multi-user lab will spread knowledge across disciplines and throughout the campus and the region because it is inherently interdisciplinary, promoting a wider perspective on problem solving than is typical of a dedicated-use laboratory. Users are exposed to people from a variety of backgrounds in academia and industry and to techniques they may not have considered in the context of their own disciplines. No one can predict where such connections will lead. l l

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