NOVA Center uses rare instrument to help companies solve problems, answer questions

Inside the concrete building that houses Western Kentucky University’s NOVA Center is a truly remarkable piece of equipment.

It’s a Large Chamber Scanning Electron Microscope — one of the two largest in North America, in fact. The massive machine can accommodate large samples — up to 40 inches in diameter, 40 inches tall and up to 650 pounds — giving the NOVA Center the unique ability to examine pieces and equipment like engines, artillery, even car frames to solve a variety of problems.

Because of the microscope’s size, it’s non-destructive, which means that most samples don’t need to be cut into smaller pieces to complete the needed analysis. That not only makes the research more efficient; it also increases the ways in which the LCSEM can be used.

“If you have a part that you need to analyze, you cut it in pieces and analyze each piece,” said Ivan Novikov, Ph.D., director of the NOVA Center. “Sometimes, it’s then unoperational. We’re providing the opportunity for non-destructive analysis. If you have a unique part that you need to examine, we’re the only facility that’s available.”

Problem solved: What the LCSEM can do

What sort of research can the LCSEM and the NOVA Center do? Quite a bit! Martin Cohron, research support coordinator at the NOVA Center, has used the LCSEM to examine an impressive variety of samples.

“We looked at an aluminum outboard motor that was having some trouble, and a whiskey barrel from Makers Mark distillery,” he said. “I’ve looked at Kenny Perry’s golf clubs to see if there were any stress fractures in the 5 and 7 irons. We do some fun things.”

Because the microscope enables non-destructive analysis, it has increasingly important applications in a variety of industries, especially within the realm of manufacturing.

“The possibilities of what we can do are endless,” Cohron said. “I’m doing a research project with a BMW manufacturer on car frames. They send me a chunk of frame, I put it right in the microscope. I don’t have to figure out how to cut a little sliver off of it to put it on a smaller microscope.

‘I’ve also been given things from truck engine manufacturers like exhaust pieces to see what metallurgy info I can get. Then they’ll put that exhaust piece back on the unit and run it for another 500 hours. Because we’re non-destructive, we can look at a piece multiple times and see the change over use. That’s why (a) large chamber is very important.”

Another key benefit is quality control, which has become more important as companies shift production and manufacturing to facilities that may be on the other side of the globe.

“With these BMW frames, they’re very particular about their suppliers, and we’re acting as a third-party quality control,” Cohron said. “A lot of companies don’t do that sort of thing—they have their own quality control but there isn’t any third-party validation. Again, we’re letting the instrument do the talking.”

The LCSEM can also be used to identify and solve problems, giving companies the information they need to avoid errors and waste.

“I had employees from an electric wiring company bring me some parts—they were losing $6,000 worth of them a week and they didn’t know why,” Cohron said. “They brought the parts, showed me where they came from and how they’re used. At that point, I’m looking at everything from tensile strength to coatings. I’ll do a cross-section of it, see what the substrate material is — it all depends on what the customer needs.”

The research and exploratory possibilities of an electron scanning microscope are vast, which is why it’s so important that the NOVA Center has more narrowly defined the work it does, partly dictated by the focus on non-destructive analysis. The center’s other critical advantage is, of course, the size of the LCSEM itself, and the fact that Western Kentucky University is the only university in the world to own and use an instrument of that size.

Spreading the word about the microscope and the center itself are ongoing priorities for both Cohron and Novikov. Cohron has started attending key industry tradeshows to give companies more information about how the NOVA Center can help them. Each research project not only adds to the NOVA Center’s body of work; it also helps generate revenue.

“There are two different missions,” Novikov said. “There’s the industrial application of the microscope and trying to get to the business side of the center. Can this instrument generate a new revenue stream for the center’s development and the university in general?”

Boiler slag from a power plant is studied in the Large Chamber Scanning Electron Microscope at the NOVA Center to study the effectiveness of enzyme treatment to coal.

Wanted: Students seeking a challenge

Novikov’s second focus, since becoming director of the NOVA Center more than a year ago, is providing education and bringing more students into the center to work on projects.

“My goal is to oversee that kind of activity—how to bring students in and what projects they should work on,” Novikov said.

At the NOVA Center, students not only have hands-on research experience; they also have an opportunity to learn how to operate the LCSEM, which can prove to be especially valuable for engineering students who may go on to work in other laboratories with similar equipment.

Recent student research highlights include developing new types of concrete by combining different types of modern graphite materials with carbon nanotubes.

“We’ve actually been able to find and locate the carbon nanotubes inside concrete and examine the structure when they’re broken,” Cohron said.

Students also examined the strength of metal, “taking pictures, putting stress on samples of metal and taking pictures with the scanning microscope so they could try to identify the various fibers of the metal using that kind of technique,” Novikov said.

Even though Cohron and Novikov are working to identify and pursue new research opportunities in applicable industries, there are numerous projects underway at the NOVA Center—and that means they’re on the lookout for students who want to become involved.

“I have multiple projects, and I can probably accommodate five students right now,” Novikov said.

The key, he added, is to understand that the NOVA Center’s projects — like other research — are time-consuming, from learning the LCSEM to conducting the actual analysis. That information is equally important for companies that want to enlist the help of the NOVA Center in a project. The LCSEM can uncover invaluable information that may not otherwise be discovered, but it’s not something that happens in mere minutes.

“With a normal microscope, it takes about 10 minutes to initiate the project, put the sample in, remove air from the chamber and take pictures,” Novikov said. “For us to just empty the [LCSEM] chamber takes hours—a different scale of time.”

Yet the results are unmatched by other types of microscopes, which is why the LCSEM is so important to the NOVA Center.

“If you need [the microscope and its analysis], we’re the only ones who can do it for you,” Novikov said.