Festive opening of the renewed Electron Microscopy Centre
Centre brings together scientific disciplines
Last Friday, the renewed Electron Microscopy Centre (EMC) of Utrecht University was officially opened. Robbert Dijkgraaf, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, and Isabel Arends, Dean of the Faculty of Science, did so with the symbolic push of a button. The centre, which houses electron microscopes that are among the most advanced in the world, brings together a wide variety of scientific disciplines, both in life sciences and material sciences.
During the opening ceremony, Dijkgraaf, who studied physics at Utrecht University, reflected on the role that science plays as an explorer of the unknown. Dijkgraaf: "The microscope is the perfect metaphor of what science stands for. Thanks to this facility, we are going to see things we did not think possible. It is a wonderful example of science as an eye opener."
The minister emphasized what he believes makes the centre so valuable. Dijkgraaf: "The greatest merit of facilities like this is that they push boundaries, by letting us join forces and gain new insights. I look forward to all the questions that are not being asked now but will be asked in the future, and reading about news based on research done in this new centre."
Smallest building blocks
Prior to the opening ceremony, a symposium took place where several researchers showcased how they use the centre’s facilities. Marijn van Huis, head of the EMC, opened the symposium.
Van Huis: "With electron microscopy, you can see the smallest building blocks of matter and of life. It teaches us in incredible detail what those building blocks do and how we can use those building blocks. For example, in life sciences it gives us insight into how to preserve healthy proteins and prevent bad proteins, which could cause diseases. In nanomaterial sciences, we can use those building blocks to make new materials. For example, to produce better solar cells, or to make electronics made out of 2D materials such as graphene, which would provide enormous energy savings."
Learning from each other
As facility manager of the EMC, Chris Schneijdenberg is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the centre. He explains what makes the EMC unique. Schneijdenberg: "We are the only electron microscopy facility in the Netherlands that houses the equipment of both life sciences and material sciences. I am proud that we were able to bring together all the electron microscopes of the different faculties and departments in one place."
Researchers from different fields meet up here, use each other's equipment and learn from one another. Who knows what great things will come out of this.
Schneijdenberg points out that housing all the microscopes under one roof is not only very efficient, but that it has another big advantage. Schneijdenberg: "Researchers from different fields meet up here, use each other's equipment and learn from one another. Who knows what great things will come out of this."
Currently, the EMC has about 100 to 120 active users. The realization of the high-quality facility was quite an undertaking. Schneijdenberg: "We have been working on realizing the renewed EMC since 2014. Every plug and connection has been talked about."
To function properly, the sensitive microscopes need an environment free of vibrations and electromagnetic radiation. The David de Wied building was chosen as the location for the renovated centre, partly because the building has a shape that absorbs certain earth vibrations and because it is located a sufficient distance away from the tramway. But despite the favourable location and characteristics of the building, considerable measures still had to be taken to make the centre truly vibration-free. Four concrete blocks, weighing thirty tons each, were installed on active and passive air buffer suspensions to provide a very stable foundation.
Whatever technique researchers want to apply or whatever detectors they want to use, it's all possible at the renewed EMC.
The relocation of the equipment that was already on campus to the new location was meticulously planned. Schneijdenberg: "The whole move itself took almost a year. We tried to keep downtime as low as possible to ensure that research could continue as usual. During the coronavirus pandemic, we were only closed for two weeks. So even during those times, researchers were able to study coronavirus spike proteins using our electron microscopes."
All types of microscopes
Now that the EMC is fully functional, Schneijdenberg says there are virtually no limitations in terms of electron microscopy at the centre. Schneijdenberg: "We essentially have every kind of electron microscope you can think of. Whatever technique researchers want to apply or whatever detectors they want to use, it's all possible at the renewed EMC."