Lakehead University researchers peer into new ways to clean up environmental contamination

Imagine a typical bumble bee. It’s roughly two and a half centimetres long. With Lakehead University’s newly installed field-emission scanning electron microscope (FE-SEM), that bee can easily be viewed at 120,000 times magnification, making that bee appear three kilometres long.

Al MacKenzie, who recently retired as the Director of Lakehead University’s Centre for Analytical Services, describes the leap from Lakehead’s current and out-dated scanning electron microscope to the new one. “With minimal training on our old system a student or researcher could see things at about 20,000 times magnification. On our new system with the same minimal training, that same person could see things at 120,000 times magnification. That’s an increase of 6-fold, right out of the box. And with advanced training, Lakehead University researchers and students can potentially get magnifications as high as 600,000 times.”

The purchase and installation of the FE-SEM was made possible through a grant awarded from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ministry of Research and Innovation.  Dr. Phil Fralick (Geology) and Dr. Aicheng Chen (Chemistry) are the principal investigators for this grant. These two leading researchers look forward to seeing and analyzing extremely tiny structures in their research. 

It has been known for some time that certain microscopic bacteria found in Ontario and Nova Scotia lakes have a role in cleaning up arsenic, but no one fully understands the underlying processes. One of Fralick’s graduate students Leah Kerkermeier is attempting to solve this mystery with Fralick. As an Environmental Earth Sciences graduate from Lakehead, Kerkermeier was drawn to the project because of her interest in environmental remediation, “This project will give me better understanding of how arsenic and other heavy metals work in water. It will allow me to study how to concentrate these elements together so they can be removed from drinking water supplies or mine cleanup sites without any additional harm to the environment.” In some areas of the world, large populations of people are affected by arsenic contaminated drinking water and the outcomes of this research could help.

After Fralick and his team gain a better understanding of what’s going on in nature, Dr. Chen an expert in electrochemistry and nanotechnology, hopes that he will be able to mimic the natural processes in his laboratory. But in order to assess his work, Chen and his team must be able to see and analyze the structures they create. Chen is pleased with the arrival of the FE-SEM. “We’ll be able to easily see the nanostructures we create.”

MacKenzie sees the FE-SEM as a major boon for the university and is excited to see students be granted access on how to operate the instrument. MacKenzie is also excited to be able to provide industries within the region access to the FE-SEM. “This machine will help us provide support for regional economic development testing and the microscope has already been used for mineralogical applications for the Ring of Fire area.”

Story by Jason Dampier