Cutting-edge technology brings different fields together at institute’s lab

by Aidan Geary, originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 9th 2016.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dr. Derek Oliver in the Manitoba Institute for Materials.

Dr. Derek Oliver in the Manitoba Institute for Materials.

Descending the stairs into the new Manitoba Institute for Materials is like walking into Ironman’s basement: huge, complicated-looking machines loom behind walls of glass, and a pair of TV screens shows detailed, 3D atom structures rotating slowly.

The difference is instead of crafting vigilante weaponry, this lab will use its state-of-the-art machinery to study materials, and it’s available not to Tony Stark, but to more than 200 researchers and students at the University of Manitoba, in disciplines ranging from civil engineering to agriculture, as well as government and private industry.

Friday was the grand opening of the institute’s new facility, a $16.7-million underground lab at the university’s Fort Garry campus housed in a sub-basement that used to hold a retired cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator.

The facility, which has been running for about six months, is home to three electron microscopes, the crown jewel of which is a Talos transmission electron microscope. At first glance, it looks like a photocopier the size of a small garden shed, but it’s actually a microscope so cutting-edge it’s one of only 10 in North America, so sensitive it has to be stored in an acoustically sealed room to prevent vibrations, and powerful enough to reveal the intricate details of atom structure in samples.

Trying to imagine what it would have been like to have access to this kind of equipment during his own undergraduate studies, Derek Oliver, the director of the institute, said it would have been “incomprehensibly exciting.”

Before cynical science buffs scoff and say if you’ve seen one electron microscope you’ve seen ’em all, Oliver noted while the technology may exist elsewhere, these machines have all but perfected it. “There are (electron) microscopes everywhere,” he said. “This is a really, really good one.”

The machines at the lab can be used to study and develop materials, he explained, for applications as far and wide as building stronger, lighter airplanes, to creating alternative energy sources, to protecting roads from damage in winter by studying how salt crystals expand and contract in the cracks of concrete.

It’s that diversity that gets Oliver the most excited — bringing various students and university faculties to study in one place, while drawing in industry and government researchers as well and mixing them all together.

“That partnership-building is a really important part,” he said. “Investing in a centralized, shared resource like this, that has all levels of government, industry and the university, investing in that way is, I think, a real game-changer.”

The project was jointly funded by the Province of Manitoba, which contributed $1 million, as well as the federal Western Economic Diversification Canada, General Electric, SFR/FEI and the Canada Foundation of Innovation.