Multi-million dollar research facility takes a closer look at the world around us


An image of a butterfly head taken taken on the Scanning Electron Microscope, coloured using Photoshop

Have you ever wondered what the surface of a leatherjacket fish might look like under one of the world's most powerful microscopes? How about analysing the meticulously applied paint layers in one of Claude Monet's masterpieces?

Tucked away in the most unassuming of buildings at the Parramatta North campus is one of the University's most unique research facilities – one that might be all about looking at objects at the nano level, yet is having a big impact on the research world.

The Advanced Materials Characterisation Facility, or AMCF, is a suite of instruments that enable researchers, students and industry to carry out all-important material analysis.

The facility comprises more than a dozen pieces of some of the most state-of-the-art characterisation instrumentation available. Collectively, it is worth millions of dollars, and while each instrument performs in different ways, they share a common ability to analyse the composition of biological samples and other materials. Some can also magnify objects up to a staggering one million times.

Not surprisingly, the AMCF is regularly used by students and staff from right across the University as they go about their research work, as well as being in demand from commercial clients from across industry and researchers at other universities, both here in Australia and from around the world.

Dr Richard Wuhrer, the Research Manager at the AMCF, says the instruments can be used to do everything from identifying the trace elements and compounds in samples, to conducting thermal analysis of objects.

"What makes the AMCF unique is the scope of the analysis we can carry out with the various instruments, and having them all part of one, centralised facility," he says.

"We have staff and students from across the University using the instruments, including those from engineering, computing, medicine, science and the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment. The equipment underpins a lot of the research work that is going on within the University.

"We also have everyone from world-leading scientists to school students also visiting the facility, to learn more about the instruments and see just what they can do."

And if you're not quite sure how these highly scientific instruments, which have names like 'Surface Area and Porosity Analyser', can be applied in the real world, then think again. You might be surprised to learn just what kind of impact they can have on our day-to-day lives.

"For example, an engineering PhD student is currently using the AMCF to investigate how concrete is degraded by acid rain, while environment researchers are using the instruments to look closely at the structure of leaves to learn more about their take up of water," explains Dr Wuhrer.

"Forensic scientists have used the machines to analyse gun powder residue, while the Art Gallery of New South Wales has also used the imaging equipment to look at some of their most precious artworks at a microscopic level. There are lots of practical applications. The possibilities are endless."

Very soon, these finely calibrated instruments will be carefully packed up to make the delicate journey to their new home within the University's $30 million building on the Parramatta South campus, which will house science, psychology and the AMCF.

The AMCF will be among the first occupants of the new building when they move in from August, with others from the Schools of Science and Health, and Social Sciences and Psychology gradually moving in later in the year, in time for teaching to commence in 2017.

It's an exciting move for the AMCF that will provide a much-needed, purpose-built space, and will best showcase the facility and allow more users of the equipment at any one time.

"Not only that, being co-located with our colleagues will bring greater visibility across the University and the broader community, and hopefully more opportunities for future research collaborations and engagement opportunities," Dr Wuhrer says.

"As exciting as it is to help people utilise the instruments to further their research or commercial endeavours, it's equally as rewarding to demonstrate the equipment to a group of school kids, who are fascinated by the amazing images that can be generated by putting ordinary, every day objects under the microscope.

"Watching students be inspired by science and learn more about the world around them is wonderful to see."


24 August 2016

Amanda Whibley, Media and PR Manager