Strong to the Core: Nano-engineering Research Core Facility


Ashley Washburn, April 1, 2018

Strong to the Core: Nano-engineering Research Core Facility

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has more than 35 core research facilities housing shared instruments, equipment and technology and providing training, expert consultation and opportunities for collaboration to the university community and beyond. The “Strong to the Core” Q&A series aims to provide researchers and industry partners with information about the cores’ capabilities and accessibility.

The first edition spotlights the College of Engineering’s Nano-engineering Research Core Facility, located in the 32,000-square-foot Voelte-Keegan Nanoscience Research Center. The facility, home to nearly $5 million of state-of-the-art research instrumentation, puts the university and the state at the forefront of global research efforts focused on the advanced manufacturing of materials, nanostructures and nanodevices. Here’s what facility director Joe Turner had to say about the NERCF’s goals, services and future plans.

ORED: What types of research projects do the core’s equipment and instruments facilitate?

Turner: Broadly speaking, there are two categories of projects the facility helps with: manufacturing and characterization. Manufacturing is helping people make things. For example, with the 3-D metal printers, researchers can make implants with different coatings and structures. They can even make complex structures with internal channels and cavities, which can help reduce the structure’s weight or improve durability and airflow.

Characterization is helping researchers verify the characteristics and properties of the things they’ve made. For example, with a scanning electron microscope, users can zoom in on the metal or polymer they’ve created to see if it has the structure they were hoping for. They also can assess mechanical properties, such as the hardness of a new alloy.

Much of our equipment facilitates biomedical research, such as tissue engineering. Scientists can deposit cells on a scaffold, grow tissue in a culture chamber and test it to see if it has the properties of the tissue they’re trying to mimic.

ORED: Is training available to help researchers use the equipment?

Turner: We operate under a training model, with the end goal of users operating the equipment on their own. We have a group of experts for each piece of equipment, and students and researchers can request training. Once they’re proficient, they can use the equipment independently, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

ORED: Who can use the equipment?

Turner: The facility is open to all University of Nebraska researchers from any of the campuses, and to outside scientists and industry users. Right now, most of our users are students and postdocs, but we have some users from local companies, and companies from all over the country send in samples.

One of our goals is to attract more outside users. We want companies to know that we can do more than help them obtain measurements. We can also facilitate industry-university research partnerships, where a company is funding research and development.

ORED: How do researchers schedule time to use the facility?

Turner: We have an online system. A potential user requests an account and training time. After researchers have learned to use the equipment independently, they can use the online system to schedule time to use the instruments.

ORED: What is unique about NERCF’s equipment?

Turner: We have the largest hybrid metal 3-D printer collection in the United States. Metal printing will be the topic of the Great Plains Additive Manufacturing Symposium to be held in Lincoln on May 17. Our most-used instrument, the FEI Helios NanoLab™ 660 DualBeam™ system, was the only one of its kind to be located at a university when it first came out. Our instruments cover the nano-micro-macro scales with a wide scope of applications.

ORED: Do you have plans for NERCF’s future?  

Turner: We’re always looking for ideas for new equipment to acquire. But we want to acquire new instruments strategically – the equipment has to fit with the university’s research mission. I’ve also been working with the dean’s office in the College of Engineering to determine which types of equipment would be helpful to new faculty members.

We also want to enable researchers to do less traditional measurements. If someone comes in with plans to do something new and innovative, NERCF staff can provide guidance on how to do it safely with the core’s instruments. We’re trying to push beyond standard measurements and discover new adaptations and features of the equipment. I think that once people are aware the instrumentation is here, they’ll think of ways to use it that weren’t on their radar before.

NERCF’s equipment and operations are partially funded by the Nebraska Research Initiative and the Office of Research and Economic Development.

Fast Facts about NERCF

Lab director: Joe Turner, Robert W. Brightfelt Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, 402-472-8856
Lab manager: Wen Qian, research assistant professor, 402-472-2375
Established: 2016
Oversight: College of Engineering
Equipment: NERCF contains 21 pieces of equipment across 15 rooms.

WRITER: Tiffany Lee, research communications specialist, Office of Research and Economic Development
VIDEO TOUR: Jeff Wilkerson, research communications manager, Office of Research and Economic Development

Engineering Materials Science Nanoscience Research Infrastructure