Advanced $2.5m surface science lab opens

A new $2.5 million facility to boost breakthrough technologies has been opened on La Trobe University's Melbourne campus.

Its priorities include highly targeted cancer treatment, artificial heart muscle repair, carbon fibre materials for aerospace and car industries, and graphene microchips for next-generation computers.

One of the most advanced of its kind in the world – and the leading one of only three labs in Australia – it was opened by Education and Training Minister, Christopher Pyne MP.

He said the new laboratory was vitally important for research and industry innovation, and a great example of La Trobe working at the cutting edge of important research. 'For this the University should be congratulated.'

Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Dewar, said the new facility makes possible highly detailed forensic analysis of many materials by examining them at an extremely small scale, less than 100 nanometres.

Speeding up research and discovery

It builds on more that 15 years of work by the University's Centre for Materials and Surface Science, directed by Associate Professor Paul Pigram.

During that time more than 100 universities, research organisations and companies from around the world have used this open-access centre.

Professor Dewar said: 'We are very excited to have this new facility at La Trobe. It will hasten research and discovery, help industry and the wider community, and increase our understanding of the physical world.'

It was funded by the Federal Government National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy as part of the broader Australian National Fabrication Facility, which involves 19 universities and the CSIRO.

The new laboratory features two state-of-the-art Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometers. The information helps scientists reveal the molecular composition and structure of the material examined.

Highly precise and immediate

Dr Pigram said both of the purpose-built mass spectrometers were imported from Germany.  One samples hard materials such as metals, alloys, semiconductors, integrated circuits and ceramics.

The other is for soft, or organic, material such as cells, biological tissue, polymers, plastics, and organic electronics, which include futuristic flat-panel video displays, OLEDs, and organic solar cells.

Dr Pigram said the new high-performance equipment is at least ten  times more powerful than mass spectrometers of 20 years ago.

It enables scientists and industry to carry out highly precise experiments – and analyse results immediately.

'It gives us extremely detailed information about how a material is made and produces images of molecular detail. Then, by progressively blasting a little material from outermost layers, it reveals changes in composition with depth,' he said.

'Finally, by drawing all this information together, we can create a 3D picture of extremely complex multi-layered structures.'

Current projects

For example, he said research is imaging breast cancer cells to get a clearer picture of how chemotherapy drugs can best be loaded into nanoparticles and targeted directly to tumours. This is being carried out with the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science.

Another project, with CSIRO and Monash University, relates to tissue engineering – working out how to regenerate heart muscle using new electrospun fibres as scaffolding to encourage heart cells to form correctly.

Also, a new super-material – wafer-scale graphene, 200 times stronger than steel – is a key element of next generation electronic devices.

Working with Griffith University and the US Air Force Research Laboratories at Dayton, Ohio, La Trobe is probing the structure and properties of graphene, essential for its commercialisation.

Learn more about Time of Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometery

Media Queries: Ernest Raetz, 0412 261 919