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Last updated: Sat. Feb. 08, 2014 - 06:15 am EDT

A close look at IPFW’s gem

Microscope gives businesses access to key technology

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When professor Anne Argast began the process of updating equipment in an IPFW science lab, she had a pretty good idea of how her investment might help connect the college to the community.

She knew it would provide her students access to new technology.

She knew it would be an asset to local businesses needing access to a high-level microscope.

And she hoped that by charging these businesses a little money, some of the cost would be recovered.

But buying the new scanning electron microscope in late 2012 has allowed the lab to become self-sufficient, Argast said, and led to other equipment upgrades that wouldn’t have been possible a year or two ago.

The microscope, which uses electrons to produce highly magnified images, cost about $300,000 and about $30,000 a year in maintenance.

The Argast Family Imaging Lab at IPFW houses the microscope and bears the name of geology professor Anne Argast, whose family contributed about half the money needed for the purchase.

The university picked up the remainder of the tab for the initial investment.

But after a little more than a year, the lab has become self-sufficient and is bringing in enough revenue to update other pieces of lab equipment, Argast said.

Argast has developed partnerships with a dozen Fort Wayne businesses who are invited to send engineers to do their own studies.

Engineers are given access to the lab and equipment to complete their analyses, Argast said.

The university charges about $75 an hour for the first five hours in a fiscal year and then $50 an hour for up to 20 hours, she said. Anything after that is $35 an hour.

The sliding scale helps pay for the time Argast spends training people to use the equipment.

The money that the university receives is divided into three categories – service contracts to allow the equipment to be quickly repaired, operating costs and supplies, and general lab improvements.

This year, Argast spent nearly $50,000 replacing various pieces of equipment, including a decades-old centrifuge machine.

The machine spins samples at 10,000 revolutions a minute, forcing components of a material to separate so they can be analyzed individually. It’s the same technology used at a blood bank to separate components of blood.

A new machine costs about $15,000, but Argast bought a 2-year-old version for less.

Other new additions include a mill, an X-ray diffraction machine used for determining atomic and molecular structures and a petrographic microscope used for identifying rocks and minerals in thin sections.

“We’re bringing up the overall level of the lab’s functionality,” Argast said. “We’re giving and we’re getting.”

While the majority of the cost for new equipment was covered by the lab’s profits, some was also covered by the university and personal donations, she said.

Community partners

Rea Magnet Wire of Fort Wayne is among the community partners.

The company produces magnet wires used in power transformers, electrical generators, large industrial motors and appliances such as washing machines, dryers and refrigerators, said Rob Tayloe, quality manager at Rea Magnet Wire.

The company has used the microscope both for tests to determine why materials did not perform properly and for analyzing how to improve materials.

“This benefits our business by allowing us convenient and responsive access to a local lab that has the capabilities that we require,” Tayloe said.

Analysts from Fort Wayne Metals have been using the lab to conduct failure analysis tests – determining where and why a part fails.

Until the microscope was installed at IPFW, the company would pay a lab in Minneapolis more than $100,000 a year to complete the research, said Larry Kay, director of technology at Fort Wayne Metals.

“Now we’re able to do that same analysis at a lower cost and put that money back into the university,” Kay said. “It’s a savings for us and a benefit for them.”

Kay said last year, the company paid about $36,000 to use the equipment at IPFW.

Other universities and nonprofit organizations are charged $30 to use the lab for academics.

Although so far the majority of partnerships have been with companies, Argast said she would like to see the lab’s doors open to Ivy Tech, Indiana Tech, Trine University and others.

“We’re still working to get the cross-pollination with other classes and universities,” she said.

Serving students

Larger universities such as Indiana University in Bloomington and Purdue University in West Lafayette might have several labs with similar microscopes and analyzing equipment.

But for midsized schools like IPFW and the surrounding community, the technology is a game changer, Argast added.

“Having this lab allows us to do things we couldn’t before,” she said.

About 12 to 18 students have used the lab regularly as part of their geology classes, but this semester Argast said she expects that number to grow to about 25.

Several students do independent research in addition to the labs required by their classes, she said.

Argast also uses the microscope as part of her introductory geology class to teach between 75 and 120 students each semester about deep-sea sediment.

Although the class is taught remotely in a lecture rather than the lab – which has room for only about a dozen students – students have the opportunity to experience the equipment firsthand as they continue their studies.

Among those students is IPFW junior Ross Yeater, a geology major.

“When I was introduced to it, I was blown away,” Yeater said about the technology.

A recent class assignment involved taking samples of sand from around the world and looking at them first under a basic microscope and then the scanning electron microscope.

“With the light microscope, you could gather some basic information about the sand, but with the scanning (microscope) you can tell the chemical composition and much more,” Yeater said. “It’s just so powerful.”

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