A new machine for nanoscale imaging will shorten Yale researchers’ laboratory trips from a two-hour commute to just a 15-minute trip to West Campus.

The focused ion beam, which Yale mechanical engineering and materials science professor Judy Cha described as a precision knife at the nanoscale, is the first of its kind to be housed at the University. Previously, graduate students and other researchers would have to travel to laboratories at The City University of New York or Cornell University to prepare samples for electron microscopy. According to Cha, by having a focused ion beam on campus, scientists at Yale will not only save time but also be able to perform better research.

“The commute put so much strain on researchers,” Cha said. “At the beginning, when you have to do a lot of debugging, you have to make a lot of samples and have to look at a lot of them to really figure out how you should improve your experimental conditions. It becomes a prohibitive factor because you can’t really do this make-it-and-check-it cycle fast enough.”

The machine works by shooting a beam of high-energy gallium ions onto a hard surface. The beam is so powerful that it slices through the sample, leaving a nanometer-scale cross section, which can then be used in electron microscopes for high-resolution analysis at the atomic level.

Cha’s team of researchers plans to use the focused ion beam for its work on nanostructures. Before the machine came to West Campus, Cha said her team would have to travel to CUNY’s user facility to cut out tiny transistors from silicon wafers. Now, her team — and other Yale researchers — will not have to spend as much time travelling.

“When I was able to convince them that there is great need for this tool, and a number of faculty members would greatly benefit from it, then West Campus was in full support of purchasing this equipment. That does a lot for the morale of graduate students, the postdocs and also the faculty members,” she said.

According to West Campus Director of Research Operations and Technology Christopher Incarvito, the focused ion beam has uses beyond any one discipline.

“This is a universal tool — it’s not limited to just Judy’s team,” Incarvito added. “This is something that is a benefit to engineering and to all of the physical sciences. It is totally aligned with the University’s science strategy, which is placing an emphasis on central resources and those that can help accelerate our research.”

The ion beam is still being tuned and is set to open for use by the end of this week. In addition to preparing cross-section analysis, the machine will also have the ability to etch surfaces with a number of preset shapes such as circles, donuts and rectangles and will support x-ray spectroscopy, a method of determining the composition of a sample.

According to Cha’s graduate assistant David Hynek, the wait is well worth the increase in efficiency.

“You’re more productive sitting at a desk than you are on a train or in a car,” he said. “It’s science, so you go wherever you need to, but it’s definitely nice having the FIB in our backyard.”

After an eight-month-long evaluation process, Incarvito’s committee decided on the specific model — a FEI Helios G4 UX — based on performance and ease of use.

The price Yale paid: roughly one million dollars. Even though this sounds like a large number, Incarvito said it was a fairly reasonable price for the tool.

“These instruments were not cheap, but the sticker price is nowhere close to what was actually paid,” he added. “It’s not grossly misaligned with what modern research instrumentation costs nowadays.”

Cha said she is excited and grateful that Incarvito’s team is focused on facilitating research by purchasing new equipment.

“You feel that the Energy Sciences Institute and also West Campus really support you and do everything they can to enhance research productivity and research quality. It’s not only just the ability to make the sample, but also having the feeling that I’m in the right place in science,” Cha said.

The first focused ion beam using liquid metal ions was developed in 1978 by researchers in Malibu, California.

Matt Kristoffersen | matthew.kristoffersen@yale.edu