Microscopic imaging for any science? You better ThINC

Small minds: Stony Brook University's Advanced Energy Resaerch and Technology Center hosts a unique microscopy laboratory.

Stony Brook University is living large at one of the smallest ideas it ever had.

If you’re a multinational fragrance company based on Long Island, or a marine scientist studying trace elements in North Shore shellfish populations, or a civil engineer trying to mitigate South Shore coastal erosion in an era of climate change-charged superstorms, you’re likely familiar with SBU’s Thermonuclear & Imaging Nanoscale Characterization Laboratory.

Others probably don’t give ThINC much thought. But as an Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center core facility (more on that in a moment), the laboratory – under the direction of Distinguished Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering Miriam Rafailovich – is a key facilitator of university-industrial partnerships, particularly those focused on new energy solutions and especially those requiring microscopic imaging.

Miriam Rafailovich: Scopy that.

ThINC is tanked with a cutting-edge array of microscopes: an electron microscope (which illuminates samples with super-bright accelerated electrons), a transmission electron microscope (which transmits its accelerated electrons through ultra-thin specimens), a cryo-scanning electron microscope (keep those biological samples frozen) and even a confocal microscope (which any biologist will tell you is swell for three-dimensional fluorescent microscopy).

“You can accurately measure the fluorescent spectrum of photovoltaic materials,” Rafailovich noted.

While you Google some of that, consider this: The laboratory, which opened in 2014, provides unique microscopy services for virtually every science behind the busiest and most promising 21st century industries, from clean-gen to biopharma.

And “unique” is no understatement: While similar microscopy equipment exists at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, access to the Department of Energy’s super whizbang microscopes requires a lengthy proposal-and-approval process. As a core facility of the AERTC, ThINC is a user facility wide open to industry, researchers from other universities and anyone else in need of next-generation microscopy.

“Industry does not want to be on a proposal basis,” Rafailovich told Innovate LI. “They don’t want to tell people what they are doing, their proprietary information.”

But the AERTC and other state university programs are “geared for industrial development,” she added, with “the right mechanics for working with industry without having them (publicly) disclose proprietary information.”

Industry has noticed. Among ThINC’s most frequent customers is New York City-based Estee Lauder Co., which maintains a thriving Melville R&D campus and calls often on the laboratory to test new-product consistency and quality.

Marine scientists and fisheries contract for “elemental material characterizations,” according to Rafailovich, while Chem3 LLC (dba ChemCubed), a 2014 startup and AERTC legatee, rents out space stocked with “the unique facilities they need” to perform thermomechanical analyses of their customized 3D printing chemistry.

Coming through: The transmission electron microscope.

Meanwhile, a recent federal grant is funding SBU civil engineers using their lab time to research the porosity of clay and soil – a 3D imaging project providing critical data in the fight against coastal erosion.

“People can come and consult with us and we’ll tell them how to analyze the samples and obtain the data they need, and what instruments would be most appropriate for them,” Rafailovich said. “Or they can send a sample and we will do the testing.

“We are a core facility, which means we’re an unrestricted user facility,” she added.

For Rafailovich – a 1980 Stony Brook PhD (nuclear physics) oft-published in the field of materials engineering – directing the ThINC Laboratory offers a welcomed variation from the stuff of her particular expertise, which ranges from polymer thin films and nanocomposite materials to neutron reflection and atomic-force microscopy.

“So many different types use [the laboratory],” she noted. “People come and tell us their problem, and we see best how to get to whatever their goal is.

“We’d love to expand our space,” Rafailovich added. “We’d like to get some more instruments and hire some more people.

“This facility is very much in demand.”