Helenita is Here

New microscope enables researchers to watch chemical reactions one atom at a time.

Professor Miguel Yacaman has watched microscopes evolve all his life.

“I started with a machine in 1968,” recalls Yacaman, a world-renowned nanotechnology researcher and the chair of UTSA’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “But that microscope was really old and very primitive. In the late 1990s, when microscope lenses were at their peak, you could see down to two angstroms. Beyond that, everything would be blurry. It’s tremendously gratifying to see how much they’ve changed over the years.”

“Changed” is perhaps an understatement.

On Jan. 19, Yacaman watched as two 18-wheelers delivered the world’s most powerful microscope to UTSA. Dubbed “Helenita” for Helen Kleberg Groves of the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, which gave $1.2 million toward its purchase, UTSA’s new JEM-ARM 200F is causing quite a stir.

The microscope which sits at 9 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs more than 2 tons, is being installed in UTSA’s Advanced Microscopy Laboratory.

So, why all the fuss?

The machine allows scientists to see samples with a resolution of 0.8 angstroms, at a magnification 20 million times the size of a sample.

To put it in perspective, a strand of human hair magnified 20 million times would be the size of San Antonio, says Yacaman.

With such incredible detail at their fingertips, nanotechnology researchers are eager to develop new therapies and treatments to combat a variety of human diseases.

“We now have access to resolutions that will give us a tremendous scientific advantage to solve problems that need to be attacked. We’ll be able to watch particles behave one atom at a time. This is the Holy Grail for us,” says Yacaman.

Yacaman’s own laboratory is targeting nanoparticles for cancer treatment. One method they are investigating is placing nanoparticles inside a tumor and using an infrared laser to pinpoint and burn away damaged cells without harming the surrounding healthy cells.

But more research is needed. “We need to see the particles atom by atom. We need to know exactly how they behave. Helenita is the only microscope that will allow us to do that,” Yacaman says. Yacaman has been contacted by a long list of industry researchers waiting to access Helenita’s crystal-clear resolution.

Although UTSA researchers will be the first to use the microscope, Dave Olmos, the facilities manager at UTSA’s Advanced Microscopy Laboratory, expects the microscope will be operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Eventually, UTSA will offer remote operation through the Internet to scientists around the world, giving them access to a multimillion dollar piece of equipment for the cost of a $30,000 set of controls.

“They’d send us their sample, a UTSA laboratory technician would place it in the scope and the researcher would remotely operate the scope on their computer,” Olmos says.

Because sound vibrations, magnetic field vibrations and temperature fluctuations of more than half a degree can skew the instrument’s results, significant preparations were needed to ensure Helenita has a properly outfitted home.

“We had to bring in an entire engineering company to make alterations to the laboratory,” says Yacaman, smiling like a proud papa. “The room housing the microscope is a jewel of engineering.”

The ARM200 is the fourth UTSA microscope to be funded by the Kleberg Foundation and the seventh addition to the university’s Advanced Microscopy Laboratory.