Building a research hub with top-of-the-line infrastructure

Researchers looking to harness the benefits of nanotechnology and nanomaterials can now take a step further in their work with the latest cutting-edge research infrastructure at Monash University Sunway campus.

The Electron Microscopy Unit (EMU) is the first research infrastructure platform at Monash University Sunway campus. It is among the world-class research infrastructures in the Klang Valley that gives researchers a chance to conduct nanometre-level inspections for research and development purposes.

The EMU houses two advanced microscopes: the Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope (FE-SEM) gives ultra-high resolution images mainly for the study of nanoscience and nanomaterials. The second, the Variable Pressure Scanning Electron Microscope, or VP-SEM, caters mainly for biological analysis of cells, tissues and other soft materials.

“The EMU targets two different groups of researchers; material scientists who use the FE-SEM, and biologists who also benefit from using the VP-SEM,” said Dr Chai Siang Piao, Senior Lecturer at the Monash School of Engineering.

“In engineering, we develop new materials, and it is important to understand the morphology and topography of these materials. That’s where the FE-SEM comes in.
The FE-SEM, which has a resolution of up to one nanometre and magnification of up to two million times, also comes with the Energy Dispersive X-ray device which enables researchers to analyse the elements of unidentified materials, explained Dr Chai.

The purchase of the equipment has greatly enhanced Monash University Sunway campus’ position as a leading research-led institution of higher learning, committed to building the love and discipline of research in students.

“Unlike other universities with such high-end machines, here we actually train students and allow them to operate the machines themselves. Instead of doing the analysis for them, as I may not know what they want or are looking for, we provide the students the opportunity to use the many different functions and settings in the machines to acquire their desired results,” said Baljit Kaur, technical officer at the School of Engineering.

Dr Chai said the ability to operate the equipment “gives them an added skill, as even if they don’t further their career in the line of research, when they come out to work they are equipped with this analytical skill and knowledge”.

“Both the FE-SEM and VP-SEM are amazing,” he said. “A material may look smooth but under high magnification reveals a totally different texture. When it comes to nanoscale observation, it opens up a whole different world to the students.”

Prior to obtaining this facility, research students had to send their samples to other universities or research centres for analysis, which usually meant a long waiting time for results to be obtained.

“But now, they get a hands-on experience of operating the SEMs and they do their own data interpretations and analysis. Feedback from students who have used the EMU facility has been overwhelming,” said Dr Chai.
“Students are excited about having the chance to use this facility. With the gradual use of the machines, somehow or other the research interest grows in them and they have a tendency to pursue Higher Degree Research studies,” said Dr Chai.

“Students also build up their critical, creative and analytical thinking because they themselves have to decide on what aspect of their materials they want to analyse, and how it will help their research,” he said.

Monash University welcomes other institutions and universities as well as representatives from industry to partner with the campus in using the EMU to contribute to the growth of research and development in the country.