Professor Provides Glimpse Into Atomic World

Tom Ekkens, Walla Walla University Physics Department chairman, has built an instrument that examines things as detailed as 7 nanometers by using a handful of basic, everyday materials. Usually a device with this capability is commercially available for thousands of dollars. This instrument is called a scanning tunneling microscope, and Ekkens has found a way, for under $100, to achieve results similar to those of commercial models.

The physics professor was walking by PVC pipes at The Home Depot one day and suddenly had an idea: β€œI can use these to see atoms.”

He uses the pipes and a handful of other easily obtained items, like hot glue, a battery pack, a guitar amplifier pickup, a tiny metal tip, a small motor with a controller, a computer with a data processing card and two software programs he wrote, to build a functioning scanning tunneling microscope.

Ekkens has his students build their own microscopes in three laboratory sessions spanning about nine hours. The best student microscope imaging rendered a small bump that was 160 atoms wide.

β€œIt is my goal in this class to help my students realize that they can build something that does extraordinary things out of common parts,” Ekkens states.

September 11, 2014 / Walla Walla University