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Inside the Lab: Surface Science Lab

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 3:01 pm / January 5, 2016

Photo of lab assistant Kari Livingston and materials science senior Dan Kelly in the Surface Science Lab

Lab assistant Kari Livingston and materials science senior Dan Kelly check results in the Surface Science Lab. Allison Corona photos.

Surface Science Laboratory
Materials Science and Engineering
Lab Manager: Dr. Paul H. Davis

The Surface Science Lab (SSL) (, part of the Nanoscale Materials and Device Group (, studies materials at the nanoscale (1 nm = 1/1,000,000 mm, or nearly 100,000 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair) with the goal of understanding how a material’s composition and processing affect its surface structure and properties.

The lab is involved in a wide variety of projects, including improving the corrosion resistance properties of metals and coatings used in current and next-generation airplanes and helicopter rotors, developing a replacement for flash drives, figuring out how certain types of chemotherapy drugs work, investigating the effect of radiation on the mechanical properties of steel to facilitate safer nuclear reactors and nuclear waste storage, enabling synthesis of carbon nanotubes for environmental remediation, testing the strength and hardness of new materials (spinels) for use in ballistic protection applications such as bulletproof glass, and building structures out of DNA for disease detection, drug delivery, optical logic (i.e., doing with DNA and light what we currently do with computer chips and electrons), and other applications.

Photo of Lab manager Paul Davis explaining lab results to a group of students

Lab manager Paul Davis, far right, explains lab results to a group of materials science students.

Additional areas of research include creating devices using atomically thin two-dimensional materials like graphene (the focus of the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics) and understanding the magnetic and nano-mechanical properties of NiMnGa, a magnetic shape memory alloy that can be used to create miniature pumps, actuators and sensors that act in response to pressure or a magnetic field. These projects involve faculty, staff and students (both undergraduate and graduate) from throughout the Boise State College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences, as well as collaborators at Boeing, Harvard University, Idaho National Laboratory, Micron Technology, Monash University in Australia, and Northwest Nazarene University.

The primary tools used in the lab are a suite of three Bruker atomic force microscopes (AFMs). An AFM works by scanning a needle over a surface. A laser-based sensor monitors the motion of the needle to create an image of the surface under the tip of the needle. In its simplest incarnation, called contact mode, the AFM “drags” the needle (called the probe) across the surface, similar to a record player or running one’s fingers across a surface to feel it (just on a much smaller scale). However, more advanced imaging modes are possible that involve wiggling the needle to gently “tap” the surface (sometimes without even physically touching the surface). AFM can be used to learn about many things, including sample topography as well as mechanical, electrical and magnetic properties, depending upon the type of probe used.

Photo of research assistant Katie Yocham adjusting equipment in the Surface Science Lab

Research assistant Katie Yocham adjusts equipment in the Surface Science Lab.

The SSL also is equipped with a nanoindenter for measuring the nanoscale strength and hardness of materials and a tabletop scanning electron microscopy (SEM), which creates images of a sample by scanning it with a focused beam of electrons. Unlike the light microscopes often used in biology class, which are limited to imaging objects several hundred nanometers in size, AFMs and SEMs can both “see” objects that are only a few nanometers in size. Both types of microscopes are a hit with the thousands of kids and parents who attend Boise State’s annual Engineering and Science Festival in February.

In addition to answering basic research questions, the SSL uses its AFMs to help companies. For example, a custom printed circuit board manufacturer came to the lab with samples of a product from two different OEM suppliers, one of which exhibited better performance. Upon closer examination, although the two samples both met the company’s specifications, their surface topographies were found to be very different at the nanoscale. Based on these differences, the SSL was able to provide the company with a suggestion for a new specification to ensure their suppliers’ products worked properly in their particular applications.

More information about the SSL’s capabilities or utilizing the lab’s services is available at, or you can download a brochure here. Questions may be directed to lab manager Paul Davis at

By Madi Stevenson