£1.7million project enhances University’s expertise in electron microscopy

The University of Plymouth is investing more than £1.7million to enhance its world-leading research – and engagement with businesses – through electron microscopy.

The project, supported by a grant of around £1million from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), will enable the University to expand the size and capacity of its Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre (PEMC).

It will see the centre moving into new facilities on the Plymouth campus, which will have double the number of microscopes currently available and an increased number of staff to operate them.

It will also advance the support available to the local business and research community, enabling the University to work with more companies and establish a mentoring network of those that have either benefitted from – or are interested in accessing – the innovative technology.

PEMC was established more than 30 years ago and, in that time, has worked with more than 700 companies in sectors ranging from aerospace and engineering, to mining and food production.

The new funding, and the technology it offers, will enable it to continue those engagement activities while increasing its capability to cover fields such as biological, medical and marine sciences.

Dr Natasha Stephen, Director of the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre, said:

“Electron microscopy is an exciting technology that can tell you things about a product that you won’t be able to see with the naked eye. This new investment means we can continue to provide businesses with access to cutting edge technologies, but also offer opportunities that haven’t been available here before.
"It gives us the potential to use electron microscopy to tackle new and emerging global issues such as anti-microbial resistance and microplastics.”

Dr Natasha Stephen

Dr Natasha Stephen

This is the third time PEMC has been awarded ERDF funding, and it has previously been cited as an outstanding example of how European Union funding is benefitting UK science and engineering research.

It was transformed in 2011 in a project jointly funded by the University, JEOL (UK) Ltd and a £579,960 ERDF grant, which enabled it to become an invaluable facility for academics, students and dozens of businesses from across the South West.

Then, in 2017, it receive more than £1.7million to launch the Plymouth Materials Characterisation Project (PMCP), which included funds to purchase a state-of-the-art FIB-SEM microscope that can analyse substances and construct three-dimensional images on a nanometre scale.

The first phase of the current initiative – which officially launches today (1 March) – builds on the work pursued through PMCP, and includes the creation of a new Plymouth Materials Characterisation Network.

It will continue to work with businesses in Devon, and deliver a programme of knowledge exchange and technology transfer events, while also expanding the ability to use the facilities within PEMC offer to small and large companies right across the UK.

However, it will also generate a network of industry, technical and academic experts so potential clients can benefit from the experiences of those already using electron microscopy in Plymouth.

The second element of the project, taking place in 2022, will see the Centre’s microscopes double from four to eight and enable it to take on more staff. This will enable it to venture into new sectors but also significantly decrease the waiting times that businesses currently experience.

Dr Stephen added:

“The new microscopes purchased through this project will mean we can offer unparalleled access for companies to leading-edge equipment that is not yet available under one roof anywhere else in the UK.
At the same time, the new network – and a range of online and in-person events – will highlight the benefits of the technology to companies of all sizes and sectors. Combined, they give us the chance to take our expertise and experience in electron microscopy to a whole new level.”

European Regional Development Fund

This project has received up to £999,999 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Department for Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for ERDF. Established by the European Union ERDF funds help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information visit https://www.gov.uk/european-growth-funding

Langage Farm

Based just outside Plymouth, the fast-growing dairy business first began working with the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre when it noticed small differences in the consistency of different batches of its soft cheese. By spending a day generating high resolution images using scanning electron microscopes, the firm was able to analyse the different micro-structures across a range of batches.

It resulted in a further collaboration aimed at helping the company to address the cause and effect of production variations needed for enhanced quality, waste reduction and new product development across its range of more than 100 different ice creams, creams, cheeses and yoghurts.

Paul Winterton, Managing Director of Langage Farm, said:

“We are working with natural, live products, so understand that there will be some variation across different batches of our cheese, creams and yoghurts. However, we are always striving to improve quality and believe that delivering a more consistent texture will help us grow our sales.
“The finishing line for quality has no end and we were really impressed to have such a great, accessible resource on our doorstep. Knowing and applying the science behind what we do in dairy manufacturing gives us and our staff a massive advantage in ensuring our products are of the highest quality and standards possible.

“This basis has given us the information and confidence to challenge the make-up of what we do and has put us at the forefront of manufacturing consistent quality products. This has resulted in huge growth for our business with globally recognised customers, something we are very proud of.

“I will always be grateful for the wonderful people at the University of Plymouth who gave us this platform to work from, together we make a wonderful partnership.”

ARC Marine Ltd

The company is based at the University’s Brixham Environmental Laboratory. As part of the development of their innovative new Reef Cubes, they wanted to understand their microstructure and the interaction between the materials and marine plant species.

The Focused Ion Beam - Scanning Electron Microscope (FIB-SEM) in the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre milled cross-sections and high-resolution imaging to reveal the structural arrangement between kelp and the gripping concrete.

The details gathered from FIB-SEM showed how the Reef Cube surfaces were colonised by habitat building species, which offered an invaluable reference for new mix designs to innovate the chemistry of the concrete and future kelp communities that establish themselves on Reef Cubes in the marine environment.

Tom Birbeck, from ARC Marine, said:

“Use of the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre allowed us to delve in to a very new field of study dubbed geophycology, the study of algal interactions with rock – and now concrete.

"The extreme magnification and FIB-SEM cross section allowed us to examine the growth of kelp species on our concrete mixes in detail, to confirm and better understand what we had observed with the naked eye. To be able to view these interactions with such detail lends credibility to our structures as being eco-friendly and also gives us a baseline for future research in to the growth of macroalgae on our Reef Cubes, with new concrete mixes when they are developed.”

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