Navigating the nanoscale

VCU’s Nanomaterials Core Characterization Facility takes researchers into worlds a million times smaller than the head of a pin

Copper fibers at nanoscale
Nanoscale view of polyester fibers engineered with Cupron, an antimicrobial nanotechnology based on copper. Photo courtesy of Cupron, a startup headquartered in Richmond's Bio+Tech Research Park. The company is a regular NCC client. Its technology is found in consumer products from Under Armor, Duluth Trading Company and others.

Do you need to know how strong the walls of a single cell are? Looking for a cross-section of something five times thinner than a human hair? Curious about the chemical bonds in a mystery substance?

VCU’s Nanomaterials Core Characterization Facility (NCC) can help. 

The NCC is a research core facility in the VCU Office of Research and Innovation. Housed in the Institute for Engineering and Medicine, its technologies help researchers from all disciplines see and modify nanoscale materials. A partnership between VCU’s Colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences, it is a resource for users throughout VCU, and from industry across the U.S. and abroad. 

“We’re a one-stop shop for nanocharacterization techniques,” said Massimo F. Bertino, Ph.D., director of the NCC and a professor of physics. “If you have a problem with characterization, come here. We will work with the researcher and come up with a solution. And if we can't, we can point them in the right direction.” 

For more than a decade, the NCC has been helping researchers navigate the nanoscale, a world that is almost indescribably small. A single nanometer is 100,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper, a million times smaller than the head of a pin — or the width of two silicon atoms. 

The instruments able to investigate this tiny realm are costly and the facility requirements are great, including multiple electrical systems, millions of gallons of cool water and insulated, soundproof facilities. Bring those instruments and infrastructure together, and you have the NCC, one of the best-equipped nanomaterials characterization centers in the mid-Atlantic region. 

State-of-the-art technologies available in the NCC:

View the equipment

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Field Emission SEM 

  • Scans a surface with electrons that interact with a sample’s atoms for ultrafine surface characterization or manipulation
  • Recently used to analyze a piece of glass from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Focused ion beam SEM 

  • Adds gallium ions to the SEM “arsenal.” Heavier than electrons, gallium ions can perforate a material to reveal a cross-section of a sample as thin as a single speck of pollen.
  • Used recently to cross-section samples as part of a new process to coat individual grains of powder used as feedstock for additive manufacturing. 

X-ray diffraction (XRD) and thin film XRD

  • Images the size and distribution of nanoparticles; can also be used on ultrathin coatings. 

DynaCool physical property measurement system (PPMS) 

  • Measures properties of materials subjected to extreme conditions, such as temperatures lower than -270 Celsius — and enough magnetism to lift 10 cars. 

Angle-resolved X-ray photo spectroscopy (XPS) 

  • Identifies all of a material’s elements, giving their chemical states and electronic structures

Micro- and nano-CT scanning

  • Offers resolution higher than that offered by most hospital CT machines.
  • Recently used to study bone-regenerating surfaces for 3D-printed dental implants.

X-ray fluorescence (XRF)

  • Provides elemental and chemical analysis components throughout the bulk of a sample.
  • Used recently for a geologic study to assess the lead concentration in soil samples.

Atomic force microscopy (AFM) 

  • Scans a surface with a mechanical probe so sensitive it can detect individual atoms; ideal for force measurement, topographic imaging and surface manipulation. The NCC offers all forms of AFM.

Transmission electron microscopy (TEM) 

  • Sends a beam of electrons through a specimen to form an image that captures fine detail — even as small as a single column of atoms. 

Laser scanning microscopy (LSM) 

  • Permits optical slicing through tiny samples to reveal living structures as small as dendritic spines. Lower-intensity settings prevent the risk of burning living tissues.

Raman spectroscopy

  • Detects vibrational, rotational and other states in a molecular system; can also probe the composition of a sample to provide a “fingerprint” of its chemical compounds.

The NCC is not just a repository of sophisticated instruments, however. An essential component of this center is a team of scientists who provide analytical expertise to NCC users. Bertino has extensive experience in materials synthesis and characterization. Dmitry Pestov, Ph.D., is the NCC’s senior scientist, specializing in chemical engineering and surface science. Carl Mayer, Ph.D., specializes in mechanical engineering, metallurgy, materials science and biomedical applications. Together, they have helped advance numerous research projects for university and corporate partners including the following: 

Case Study: Materials for a Mars mission

Sending humans to Mars is a pipe dream. Or is it? Researchers are developing new materials to build aircraft for such a mission — and they are working on them in the NCC. As part of a NASA-sponsored, multi-institutional project, Ibrahim Guven, Ph.D., is helping develop an ultrastrong, lightweight structural material for use in deep space exploration. 

Guven, an associate professor in VCU’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, investigated whether altering the nanostructures of a composite material would provide the stiffness and resilience needed to protect human passengers in deep space. NCC imaging yielded highly detailed, 3D images of the proposed composite that “gave us a geometry and internal features that were otherwise not known to us,” he said. 

That level of detail, and the analytical expertise provided by Mayer and Pestov, helped Guven “see under the hood” and build virtual models of the material and its behavior “that look like the real thing,” he said.

Case Study: Pinpointing a cause of stiff arteries

Does an overabundance of ceramides, the sticky, greasy molecules that help maintain cell membrane integrity and conduct signaling, cause hardening of the arteries? Pin-Lan Li, M.D., Ph.D., professor and vice chair of VCU’s Department of Toxicology and Pharmacology, worked with the NCC to answer this question. Li and Owais Bhat, Ph.D., a cardiovascular biologist in her lab, used images from the center’s atomic force microscope to study changes in the elasticity of the smooth muscle cells that line the artery walls and help move blood through the body.  

The AFM’s ultrasensitive mechanical probe detected increased stiffness in smooth muscle cells from the arteries as ceramide levels were raised. Li and Bhat are continuing to run experiments for this study, which they think will shed new light on the molecular mechanisms of arterial stiffening and arteriosclerosis, a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes. “I have worked with the NCC for almost three months, and highly recommend it to other researchers,” Bhat said. “The facility, instrumentation and scientists are superb.”   

Case Study: Scaling up smoothly

Cupron, Inc., harnesses copper’s antimicrobial properties to develop medical and consumer products and technologies for companies including Under Armour and the Duluth Trading Company. Working regularly with the NCC adds efficiency to Cupron’s research and development process, said Vikram Kanmukhla, Ph.D., vice president for innovation and quality. 

An outside, third-party lab may have the same equipment, he said, but “we often have to come up with a way to analyze material, a novel way to understand the problem, and that is what we also get from the NCC.” When an initial technology scale-up didn’t go well, Cupron turned to the NCC and learned that its active ingredient was reacting with a polymer that kept it from dispersing homogeneously throughout the substrate. 

Further imaging helped Cupron correct the formulation and avoid supply chain consequences during production. “They are a true partner, with the experience and know-how and understand our technology extremely well,” Kanmukhla said. “I can give them a sample and walk away, knowing they will give me what I need.”

After all, he added, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

And when those pictures make the nanoscale visible, they may be worth even more. 

Researchers interested in collaborating with the NCC may contact the center at