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UTSA boasts world-class gift
May 4, 2010

PHOTO: Miguel Yacaman, who heads UTSA's physics and astronomy department, shows off images taken by the world's most powerful electron microscope, nicknamed 'Helenita' after King Ranch heiress Helen Groves, whose gift was used to buy the device. MICHAEL MILLER

By Melissa Ludwig - Express-News

In her first couple of months of operation, a microscope named “Helenita” is producing some of the world's crispest images of atomic particles and helping scientists harness the unseen to fight cancer and develop faster computers.

Named after benefactor Helen Kleberg, heiress of the mighty King Ranch, Helenita is the world's most advanced electron scanning microscope — and it's right here at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

“The pictures have been so great, more than we expected,” said Miguel Yacaman, a world-renowned researcher who heads up UTSA's physics and astronomy department.

Purchased with a $1.2 million gift from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, the microscope magnifies a sample by 50 million times — sticking a human hair under it would produce an image the size of San Antonio, Yacaman said.

Made by JEOL, the tool is known as a second-generation aberration corrected electron microscope. Typically, electron microscopes produce a slightly distorted image, almost like funhouse mirrors. Newer models correct the distortion, but the second-generation is built from the ground up with that correction technology in mind, producing better images of even tinier particles.

Aside from a demo version sitting in the company's factory in Japan, UTSA is the first to have the new microscope installed, though UT Dallas is not far behind.

To the untrained eye, the pictures look like little more than a pyramid of dots. But scientists can learn much by looking at the formation of atoms in a particle of gold or cobalt.

The particles could help fight cancer because they heat up under infrared light, destroying malignant cells without harming healthy tissue. Theoretically, scientists could inject particles of gold into the body — attached to antibodies to steer them toward the cancer — then heat the particles up and kill the tumor, Yacaman said.

Other applications include cramming more transistors onto a microchip to make computers run faster. By studying the way proteins “self-assemble” matter, like the way calcium carbonate forms into a seashell, scientists hope to make proteins that can self-assemble transistors into a circuit, Yacaman said.

UTSA paid $2.2 million for the microscope using the Kleberg gift and various other sources. The microscope arrived in pieces on two 18-wheelers on Jan. 19 and was assembled within a month.

Renovating a room for the new tool took $500,000 alone, Yacaman said. The walls are covered in foam to absorb vibrations from people and cars, and special air conditioning apparatus keeps the room at a steady 77 degrees.

UTSA will open the microscope up to outside researchers, especially sister UT institutions. Eventually, researchers from around the world will be able to send samples for UTSA researchers to analyze, Yacaman said. The lab is already multinational, staffed with researchers from Mexico, India, Chile and Colombia.

“We have nothing to envy other facilities; this is as good as any in the world,” Yacaman said.


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