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Explosives research at UTRGV Physics Department conducts experiments with state-of-the-art equipment


A scanning electron microscope delivered to UT Rio Grande Valley last week will be used in research to help create new explosives for the Defense Department, physics professors say.

The half-million-dollar, Japanese-manufactured microscope was delivered in two boxes last Tuesday to the M1 building on the Brownsville campus.

“We’re working with DOD to make the new kind of explosives,” physics Professor Karen Martirosyan said last Tuesday during a tour of the applied physics laboratories given to The Rider. “We are working to make nanoparticles [that] can explode very fast. We are working to make some microengines, rockets, this kind of research, and also environmental research.”

The microscope, which is the first of its kind in the region, was funded through a grant from the Defense Department and the research that will be conducted with the equipment is funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Air Force, Martirosyan said.

“This is contributing to all biophysics and biomedical,” he replied when asked what type of research can be conducted with the microscope.

Martirosyan said nanoparticles are about 50,000 times smaller than a human hair.

“So we need to look [at] that, how we will see and that is the [scanning] electron microscope,” he said.

About 50 physics, biomedical sciences and biophysics undergraduate and graduate students work with Martirosyan and Associate Physics Professor Ahmed Touhami on research experiments, Martirosyan said. Visiting students and faculty from across the world also work with the department.

Touhami said the microscope will also be used by other departments in the university, including biology and chemistry.

Among the other equipment shown in the tour was the integrated fluorescence and atomic microscope that was funded through a $276,233 grant from NSF in 2013.

“This microscope allows you to image … at nanoscale,” Touhami said. “We are studying biological systems with the physical technique because in biology there is a lot of physics.”

He gave an example of bacteria, which have “hair” that sticks to a surface.

“And, this stickiness is a force. … Understanding the physics of this stuff is very important,” Touhami said.

The techniques used to produce this research are unique to South Texas. Students from UT Austin are also conducting research on biological systems at UTRGV.

The Rider also toured the optical physics laboratories, where research is conducted on gravitational waves. The labs are located in the Science, Engineering and Technology building.

The research is conducted in collaboration with and led by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They also use laser interferometric detectors located in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La.

“This is purely research on a graduate level,” said Volker Quetschke, a physics associate professor. “All the research that happens here has nothing to do with pre-manufactured classes. This is only stuff that is done on a novel basis when we want to find out something. Either we want to improve the detector as it exists or find some new stuff.”

Among the students working in the optics laboratory is Artemiy Bogdanovskiy, a physics doctoral student.

Bogdanovskiy had this advice for undergraduate students who wish to conduct research in optical physics: “They need to think twice and make sure that is exactly what they want. If they do, well, they need to study math and physics.”

Students interested in conducting undergraduate or graduate research with the Physics Department may email department Chair Soma Mukherjee at soma.mukherjee@utrgv.edu.

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