In this episode, we are featuring the Imaging and Manipulation of Nanostructures facility of the Molecular Foundry. The Imaging Facility applies and develops techniques to characterize and manipulate a broad variety of nanostructures, from hard to very soft matter, including
They host a variety of instruments that are available to users, but each presents different challenges with respect to remote access and training. Hear from Foundry staff members Ed Barnard, Virginia Altoe, and Ed Wong about some of their newest innovations.
Welcome to our final episode of Foundry from Home, a podcast to highlight new developments in remote virtual and physically distance user access to the Molecular Foundry. I’m Shannon Ciston, the User Program Director at the Foundry. Today we’re featuring the Imaging and Manipulation of Nanostructures facility. The imaging facility applies and develops techniques to characterize and manipulate a broad variety of nanostructures from hard to very soft matter including liquid structures. Imaging methods span electron optical and scanning probe microscopy, including in situ microscopy. It’s my pleasure to welcome our guests from the imaging facility today, Virginia Altoe, principal scientific engineering associate, Ed Wong, senior scientific engineering associate, and Ed Barnard, principal scientific engineering associate. Thanks for joining us, everyone.
So I’d like to start with setting the stage for the innovations in the imaging facility by talking a little bit about the diversity of instrumentation and projects at the facility. So Ed Wong, can you tell us a little bit about that?
Well, the diversity of instrumentation at the facility, you know, we’ve got tools that are very much experimental. Developed on the fly sometimes, depending on the length of time that the user is here. Sometimes they’re more planned out, and we can develop them better, to be more robust and user friendly. And then we have instrumentations that are turn-key, like the SEM, TEMs and the XPSes, etc. So we’ve got a little bit of everything, which definitely requires people to interact, even on a remote level.
Virginia, I remember when the news about covid-19 pandemic in other parts of the world first started making headlines in the US that the imaging facility staff were anticipating the possibility of a lockdown here as well. Can you tell us about how your facility staff made that early response?
Yes, Shannon, our first movement was towards installing remote access software. In every piece of instrument that we have in the imaging facility. The other thing we did is to acquire some robot that we could (use) that’s basically an iPad on a stick that we could (use to) talk to the users. And so we would combine the remote access to the software, and this robot to be able to work remotely with their users. As Ed Wong mentioned, some instruments are still very dependent on turning knobs, other instruments you can fully operate remotely through the software. So it was a challenging to get to the point where we could really perform work from home.
Thanks, Virginia. I also heard that Ed Barnard has done some tremendous work to integrate remote work into the optics lab, and that intersects with the fabrication work of Ed Wong, so Ed Barnard, can you tell our listeners more?
Sure. So I work primarily in the optics and laser spectroscopy laboratory. And we build a lot of custom optical microscopes. These microscopes have many, many components and are customized for different experiments. And so we found when we had to lock down and not get out in lab that you couldn’t do these experiments anymore. And so what we really had to do is think about ways that we could automate that experience such that users could actually do those experiments from from home and so we could also help them remotely as well. And so this is not only just for the ability to do this remotely, but it also it’s automated, like why not have the computer do your experiment for you if you can make that happen. And so we’ve been working to add motorized flip mirrors that allow you to switch between laser sources, positioning optics so you can align the lasers into the microscope precisely. And that actually also even adds an additional layer, which is safety – you don’t have to stick your hands in the path of a powerful laser. And so there’s a lot of benefits for from making your your microscope a robot. And so we work very closely with Ed Wong on designing things. He’s got a lot of experience talking to scientists and learning about what what they need as far as the mechanical structures. And so I worked with him to develop a number of different systems, and along with that, we got ourselves a little 3d printer so we could prototype a number of these little parts that allow us to connect little motors to the optical components that we get from Thorlabs. And then we can fabricate these in a much more robust material later on. But it turns out the 3d printing stuff actually works for many things. And so we’ve started building a lot of different motorized systems, and figure out what we can do.
That’s great. Thanks. And, Ed Wong, I understand you’re very involved in the fabrication of custom equipment for use in the imaging facility. Can you tell us more about how you’ve been able to do that, during the pandemic?
Well, I’ve been able to do it because our workshop is actually in a different building. And so there’s a lot more space over here at the 62 high bay and machine shop. So I get the instruction from the users through our morning safety meeting. And then I can go off and do my thing alone here. Yeah, it’s just the distance, it has allowed me to be able to work. Thanks.
Okay. And Virginia, I’ve got another question for you about training. So user training has been a challenge all across the Molecular Foundry for the past year, because traditionally, we will be training users, with staff side by side with users, you know, showing them things hands on together. And we haven’t been able to close that six foot distance just yet. So Virginia, have you been making training work? What are some innovations in that space?
Yes, I think during this last year, training was really challenging for all of us. And I can sympathize with the users on how hard it was to get on track. And to be able to do some experiments in the lab, the first thing I learned is that it’s really important to prepare for the training. So I dedicated a lot of time having pre-Zoom meetings with the users that were going to perform the training with all the manuals, and all the, you know, pre work, especially discussing with them what is really that the scientific question that they are trying to answer with that particular experiment? As you know, it’s not just one technique to respond to the question the scientific questions, right, it’s a combination of experiments that ultimately will give you insights on the science that you are investigating. So that was one point that I learned that is really valuable. So they want they come to the training, especially because the training is done completely remotely until now during this last year, and they are well prepared. And we are focusing on exactly the parts of the instruments or the types of techniques that are useful to them at the moment. So I think the remote access to the software, combining with preparation, and like there is always a meeting during the sessions, right, that we were able to gather, you’ll note also that the imaging facility offers support to all other facilities. And we have like created a strong group of users from staff from the other facility that train their users in our instruments. So like working together, we were able to keep moving forward, although the difficulties were important to overcome. But I think we during this last year, we were able to still to offer support to a large, relatively large number of users.
Yeah, thanks for that, Virginia. And okay, I want to return to this idea of automation. So Ed Barnard, you brought up automation with respect to optics. And recently there was a conversation that included imaging facility director Alex Weber-Bargioni. And looking ahead, he was really excited about the potential for investment in automation sort of all across the imaging facility. And I think you’ve been pretty involved in that effort. Can you tell us about how can automation really be kind of broadly useful within the imaging facility?
So I think that, like I mentioned before, that automation of our instruments has a number of really great advantages. It allows us to work remotely. That’s that’s a big win in the past year, but it also maybe allows us to do things in a more reproducible manner. It also allows us to do things in a more safe manner because you don’t have to stick your hands in an instrument where there can be high power lasers, for example. And so automation involves those many, many parts. Many of our instruments are state of the art, and therefore to really perform at that level optimization and tuning of the laser, you have to really get that beam round and in focus and properly focused. On the electron microscopes, you need to align the electron column and do the focus precisely. And STM tips are another example where you actually have to shape it. You smash it into your sample until you get it perfect. And, and doing that, although many of those tests are very tedious, an expert can do it. And so many of us are trained to do that. But it’s not the most fun. It’s not the science that we want to do we want to actually do the science. And so if we can automate that, so it can we can do it reproducibly every time and do it faster. That would be a great win for the for the Foundry. Yeah. So can we do that? Can we make that possible? I think we can. There’s another big part of the thing that people spend a lot of their time finding their, their little nano structure on their millimeter or centimeter or wafer sized sample. And so that actually, if we can automate that process as well, so that we can optimize the microscope, find the sample that you’re looking for, and then move it to another microscope and find that same sample that same nanostructure, we can do a lot of really cool science. So what we did during this past year, the shutdown, we kind of looked at all the instruments found where we could find as the points where you had the points of failure and automation, where you couldn’t actually get the experiment done if you weren’t sitting in lab. And so we identified a few of those things, some things relatively simple, like the output selector, just send it to a spectrometer or to a camera on our microscope with literally turning a knob. But somebody had to be there. And I’ve known that that that was a problem. Because I’ve had to be, as opposed to turning that knob as the only reason I was in lab late at night, one night. Finally, this was a good excuse to stick a little motor on there and flip back and forth. Yeah, and so that that is now that was kind of the last step. And that microscope. So now allows us to do a full experimental campaign, just by sticking your sample on there, turning the laser on, and then going home. And so that’s the type of thing that we’ve started to do, we’re also started to put detectors along our beam path so that we can find the optimal position of the laser beam. So you don’t have to look at it at a camera or at a paper card that you stick into the beam path. Right. So this is the beginning of a long path, we hope that we can do this on all of our microscopes, and be able to take our sample between microscopes and collect data quickly without spending any time aligning the microscope. And that’s maybe never going to happen completely. But at least we can automate as much as possible to make it the that 99% of our time is spent doing science and only 1% of their time is doing alignment and finding of our beautiful nano structure.
Great, thanks a lot. That’s, that’s exciting stuff. And I think we’re all looking forward to seeing you know, how that, how that develops. And so this is the final installment of our Foundry from Home podcast. So I just want to wrap up here by touching a bit on the hope, the excitement about the day when the threat of this pandemic recedes, and we can have more user presence on site and, and work together a little more side by side, if I want to open it up to any of you do any of you want to say anything about that kind of looking forward.
I would say that all the automation that we’re doing, and all of the tools that we create, are not going to go away, they’re gonna be useful tools, but I think we’re gonna gain the ability to actually sit down and have coffee and chat with a scientist so that we can plan out our experiments that are next next thing and and that’s what we really want to do. We want that the interaction and be able to do the science. And we want to cut out the other stuff, though, if nothing else, we’ve learned how to focus ourselves on removing the parts that are hard to do remotely so that we can do the experiment part. And then we can spend that time that we would have spent turning knobs to discuss and have coffee and chat about the science so that we can come up with the next best experiment.
All right. So that marks the end of this episode. I want to say thanks to our guests, Ed Barnard, Ed Wong and Virginia Altoe. Thanks so much for being here with us. Really appreciate your time. And this wraps up our Foundry from Home podcast, and we invite everyone to check out our full set of episodes to learn about the ways Molecular Foundry is facilitating user science amid the covid-19 pandemic. Thanks for listening everyone and we hope to see you soon.
This has been a production of the Molecular Foundry’s User Program Office and communications team. The music used in this production was “Still room on the night train” by Ketsa courtesy of the Free Music Archive. The Molecular Foundry is a US Department of Energy Office of Science user facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.