Grant enables WCU to acquire microscope that expands research

The National Science Foundation awarded $306,175 to Western Carolina University faculty members David Evanoff and Scott Huffman for the acquisition of a Raman microscope for undergraduate research and education.

Raman spectroscopy uses a laser probe to measure the vibrational frequencies of molecular bonds to determine the chemical composition and structure of a material. A Raman microscope scans a laser probe across a sample, providing a spatial image of the sample’s chemical composition.

“Spectroscopic imaging techniques are gaining a great deal of traction in many industrial applications, most notably in the pharmaceutical industry, in which pills are imaged during production to check for drug purity, overall concentration and even relative concentrations,” said Evanoff, an assistant professors in the Department of Chemistry and Physics. “Having such instrumentation at WCU will certainly help prepare our students for this new trend in analytical chemistry.”

The microscope has been ordered and is expected to be installed on the ground floor of Stillwell Science Building and operational by the end of the year. The instrument will afford students the opportunity for hands-on experience in laboratory courses and in conducting research with faculty in a variety of areas, including nanomaterials (materials with dimensions approximately 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of human hair) and chemistry that occurs at a surface.

Studies being undertaken by WCU faculty include developing nanoparticles for biomedical imaging, and developing techniques to use silver nanoparticles to increase the efficiency of organic solar cells.

“We are happy to be able to bring this instrumentation to WCU because it’s a great step forward as we work toward building the infrastructure necessary to perform research at this cutting edge of chemistry,” Evanoff said.

Additionally, Huffman, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics, will work with WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center to use the microscope to identify materials and methods used to produce various cultural artifacts.

“With this new imaging system, we should be able to nondestructively probe a whole range of interesting objects, from antique coverlets to paintings to Cherokee pottery and baskets, and characterize their composition and ascertain their current state of preservation,” Huffman said.

The microscope also will be used for outreach activities with regional high schools.