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18 March 2021 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Elfrieda Lotter
From the Centre for Microscopy are, from the left: Edward Lee, Prof Koos Terblans, Hanlie Grobler, and Nonkululeko Phili-Mgobhozi.

In its quest to inspire excellence, the University of the Free State (UFS) is in the process of installing state-of-the-art microscopy instruments that will differentiate them as leaders in materials research.

This project to the value of R65 million will not only promote research in, among others, the fields of Chemistry, Physics, Microbiology, Geology, Plant Sciences, Zoology, and Cardiothoracic Surgery, but it will also increase the number of research articles published. 

Prof Koos Terblans, Head of the Department of Physics and Director of the Centre for Microscopy at the UFS, indicates that the university recently purchased a high-resolution transmission electron microscope (HRTEM), a scanning electron microscope (SEM), and a focused ion beam secondary electron microscope. 

“The installation of the equipment that was delivered on 1 March 2021 will take approximately three to six months,” he says. 

Research at another level

The biggest instrument, the HRTEM, allows for direct imaging of the atomic structure of samples. This powerful tool will allow researchers to study the properties of materials on an atomic scale. It will, for instance, be used to study nanoparticles, semiconductors, metals, and biological material.

The instrument will also be used to optimise heat treatment of materials, as it can heat the sample up to 1000 °C while recording live images of the sample. “With this apparatus, the UFS is the only institution in South Africa that can perform this function,” says Prof Terblans. 

He says to install the apparatus, they had to dig a hole of 2 m deep in a special room where the machine was to stand. The machine was then mounted on a solid concrete block (4 m x 3 m x 2 m) in order to minimise vibration. The instrument also acquired a special air conditioner that minimises the movement of air in the room. 

The focused ion-beam secondary electron microscope that was purchased, is used together with the HRTEM, explains Prof Terblans. It is used to cut out samples on a microscopic level to place inside the HRTEM. 

Having access to both the HRTEM and the ion-beam secondary electron microscope places the UFS at another level with its research, says Prof Terblans. 

At the forefront of microscopy 

The third machine acquired, the SEM – which is an electron microscope – allows researchers to produce images of a sample by scanning the surface of the sample with a focused beam of electrons. Prof Terblans says this machine will be used to serve researchers in the biology field with high-resolution SEM photos. 

The UFS Centre for Microscopy can, besides UFS researchers, be accessed by researchers from the Central University of Technology, the national museum, and other research facilities. 

With this injection of state-of-the-art equipment, the UFS is now more than ever at the forefront of research in South Africa. 

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