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Federal Grant Preserves Critical Equipment for Molecular Exploration

April 1, 2021

NMR spectrometerAn important and expensive piece of equipment that was nearing the end of its life is getting a vital upgrade, thanks to a new grant awarded to Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry Professor Andy LiWang from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR).

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers allow scientists to scan the structures of biological molecules. In the medical arena, they are used to scan the internal organs and joints of patients, but because “nuclear” can be scary to some people, these instruments are called magnetic resonance imagers (MRIs), LiWang said.

An NMR spectrometer uses powerful magnetic fields to identify atoms and analyze their behavior in molecules. It’s essentially the same as an MRI, except instead of looking at people, researchers are looking at proteins and molecules.

The campus purchased a 14.1 Tesla NMR spectrometer in 2008. The machine featured new technology called a cryoprobe, which allows detection of signals emitted by excited atoms with much greater sensitivity than is possible with conventional probes.

But the company that makes the spectrometer, San Jose-based Bruker BioSpin, warned NMR Facility Director David Rice last year that it would no longer guarantee support or repairs for that first-generation cryoprobe.

“It’s the most powerful spectrometer on campus — it’s a workhorse for all the people studying biomolecules,” Rice said. “The cryoprobe is kept near absolute zero to boost the signal-to-noise ratio. The spectrometer is essential to quite a few people, from materials scientists and bioengineers to molecular and cell biologists and chemists.”

Without an upgrade or replacement, the 14.1 Tesla spectrometer would become unusable within about a year. But the cost of upgrading the cryoprobe and essential accessories was more than half a million dollars.

“Fortunately, we were awarded an instrumentation grant for $571,000 that enables us to replace the first-generation with the latest fifth-generation cryoprobe, which will provide much greater sensitivity and important new capabilities for our 14.1 Tesla NMR spectrometer,” LiWang said. “Getting this grant is a huge relief — if the spectrometer stopped working, we’d be dead in the water.”

The award is the result of a merit competition administered by the Army Research Office under policy and guidance of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSDR&E), to increase the capabilities of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-serving Institutions to perform defense research. The Army Research Office is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.