Aug. 3, 2021 — To reach the summit of two multimillion-dollar pieces of state-of-the-art equipment, scientists climb stairways spiraling around the structures — each the size of two supersized stacked refrigerators.
The $40 million National Science Foundation investment is intended, in part, to advance health research and drug development.
The spectrometers operate in much the same way as MRI scanners, the magnetic resonance imaging machines used to take pictures to glimpse inside the human body. But instead of taking pictures of people, the new machines will take pictures of molecules, explains Jeffrey Hoch, PhD, from the Department of Molecular Biology and Biophysics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine in Farmington.
Nuclear imaging will enable the study of molecules, atom by atom, and check chemical reactions under various conditions. The bigger the magnet in the machine, the finer the detail it can investigate.
The technology will help researchers understand battery components, nanomaterials, and surface coatings, and will open myriad avenues for research, some yet to be imagined.
In less than 3 years, the University of Georgia in Athens and the University of Wisconsin at Madison will each have a cutting-edge 1.1-gigahertz spectrometer and will join the UConn School of Medicine to make up the three pillars of the Network for Advanced Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. Researchers in Georgia will study substance mixtures, and those in Wisconsin will study solids.
To use a spectrometer, someone climbs stairs wrapped around the machine and drops small sample-containing tubes into the top. An “air elevator” then carries them down into the magnet, where molecules can be isolated and studied, explains Engin Serpersu, PhD, a program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF).
U.S. Lags Behind Europe
There are only a handful of the spectrometers, which can cost up to $30 million each, in the United States, and outside researchers are rarely allowed access. So, the addition of these two new machines will improve research considerably, says Steven Ellis, PhD, who’s also a program director at the NSF.
This is good news, because the U.S. has lagged behind Europe in ordering, installing, and using this technology, he says. In fact, that lag was noted in a 2013 National Research Council report that stressed the need for ultra-high-field nuclear imaging.
If the failure to keep up with advances in commercial technology “continues, the United States will probably lose its leadership role, as scientific problems of greater complexity and impact are solved elsewhere,” the report states.
“I can’t [overstate] the importance of making these instruments available to more users,” Ellis says. “If you want to know how a protein works, you really want to know how it’s folded, where all the atoms are, and how things are interacting with it.”
For the first time, the technology will be available to science, technology, engineering, and mathema