Shaking our world - Technology at the Vibrational Spectroscopy Facility

Materials World magazine
1 Dec 2015

Khai Trung Le speaks to Dr Elizabeth Carter, University of Sydney, about the equipment used in the Vibrational Spectroscopy Facility.

Tell me about your background prior to joining the University of Sydney.

I obtained my BSc degree in 1991 and an honours degree in 1992 at Griffith University. My PhD, from 1992 to 1997, was under the supervision of Professor Peter Fredericks at the Queensland University of Technology using vibrational spectroscopy to characterise wool. In late 1997, I started a joint Postdoctoral position with the Schools of Pharmacy and Chemistry at the University of Bradford with Professors Brian Barry and Howell G M Edwards. The postdoc project was to use IR and Raman spectroscopy to investigate how penetration enhancers, such as DMSO, interacted with stratum corneum, the outermost layer of skin. In 2000, I returned to Sydney, Australia, and started a post-doctoral position with Associate Professor Robert Armstrong at the University of Sydney, using Raman spectroscopy to investigate fullerenes and their derivatives. This position evolved into a full-time position as the Professional Officer of the Vibrational Spectroscopy Core Facility (VSCF) at the School of Chemistry. In January 2014, five new university-wide collaborative core research facilities were established, including the VSCF, of which I am now the manager.

What attracted you to the field of spectroscopy?

I didn’t find it, spectroscopy found me! From a very early age, I wanted to be a forensic pathologist because I watched too many episodes of Quincy MD. So that took me down the path of becoming a scientist. My honours degree was using graphite furnace atomic absorption spectroscopy to investigate heavy metals in children’s hair and part of the course work was a spectroscopy subject. I loved the idea of looking at all different types of spectra and working backwards to determine what the compound was – the investigative part of me. My father was very keen for me at the end of that year to get a job that paid money – to stop being the eternal student – and I was very lucky to find one as a research assistant working with Professor Peter Fredericks at the Queensland University of Technology. The project was using IR and Raman spectroscopy to characterise wool fibres. I was encouraged to apply for an APRA (Australian Postgraduate Research Award) and when I was successful, the research assistant position evolved into a PhD project.

An inVia confocal Raman microscope was added to VSCF earlier in the year.

The inVia Renishaw Raman microscope is very heavily used and is often booked 2–4 weeks in advance. At the moment, it is mostly used for mapping, a specialised sampling technique used to not only identify the type of components within a sample but it can produce a false-colour map that illustrates the size, distribution and spatial location of the various components within a sample. Our most recent addition in the mapping arena has been 3D volume mapping which allows us to collect data in the x, y and z planes. We do a lot of experiments using the complementary technique of infrared spectroscopy including IR imaging. Imaging also provides false-colour images that are used for component identification as well as size and location of domains. The major difference between mapping and imaging is that when mapping the data is obtained sequentially whereas in imaging the data is collected simultaneously. 

An important role of the facility staff is to assist our users to find access and use external equipment at other facilities such as the Bruker Hyperion 2000 microscope coupled to an FTIR 80v bench at the infrared beamline at the Australian Synchrotron. One function of the Bruker Hyperion 3000 instrument located in the VSCF is to train new users and assess projects that would benefit from further studies at the IR beamline of the Australian Synchrotron.

What other equipment do you employ at the VSCF?

The facility contains a range of vibrational spectroscopy (Raman and FTIR) instruments, each with specialised capabilities and sampling accessories that are used for collecting point spectra and producing chemical/biochemical maps and images. In January 2015 we also took over the management of four instruments within the School of Physics. The VSCF Physics Nodes contains two IR spectrometers, an X-ray photoelectron spectrometer and an ellipsometer. Although not vibrational spectroscopic equipment per se, these instruments provide complementary data.

We have recently received two incubators to allow us to undertake measurements on live cells using the IR imaging and Raman mapping instruments. We have also installed a Vibrational Circular Dichroism (VCD) module on one of our FTIR instruments (Bruker FTIR Vertex 80v), this is the only one of its kind in Australia (to the best of my knowledge). This instrument will provide information about the secondary structure of biomolecules such as proteins, RNA and DNA and how they change as a result of substrate binding, ligand binding, metal binding, oxidative stress, changes in pH or temperature, biomolecular docking and drug/target interactions.


1. Physik Instrumente, based in the Netherlands, has released a range of miniaturised, multi-axis linear and rotary positioners, for use in a range of applications including electron microscopy. The high-precision positioners provide measurement up to 1nm resolution, and are easy to implement in existing setups, with a command and driver set enabling plug-and-play. 

2. Global scientific instruments manufacturer Bruker unveiled the SkyScan 1275 in October 2015, a microtomograph designed for fast scanning in the technology of X-ray sources and flat-panel detectors. The SkyScan enables quick results visualisation, with a minimum scanning time of 80 seconds, under optional stages of micropositioning and material testing to allow sample scanning under compression, tension, heating or cooling.

3. USA-based Epsilon Technology has launched the Model 7642 axial high-temperature extensometers. Upgrades over previous models include increased maximum temperature of 600˚C, improved strain measurement accuracy and strain control performance, and higher test frequencies. Compatible with most existing test controllers, the Model 7642 is suitable for testing composites, metals and high-temperature polymers in tensile, compression and cyclic testing.

4. The University of Bristol, UK, has been awarded funding to build the UK’s first NanoESCA system, which combines photo-electron emission microscopy and imaging electron spectroscopy. Intended to image material surfaces at the atomic level, the NanoESCA system will lead advances in research into composite materials and bio-nano, among others. Bristol will also be collaborating with the Diamond Light Source Synchrotron in Oxford, exchanging samples for analysis.

Next month's Spotlight is on automation