Global laboratory allows remote access to materials analysis equipment

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2007
Man at computer

Billed as the 'Global Lab', a new computer-based facility at Imperial College London, UK, enables researchers to remotely operate state-of-the-art equipment located in the USA without clocking up air miles, saving time, money and carbon emissions.

The technology has been established as part of the AtlanTICC Alliance, a joint venture between Imperial, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, both in the USA, to investigate future energy solutions.

Operating through the UK provider of the US National LambdaRail network, the laboratory enables scientists at Imperial to manipulate the aberration corrected electron microscope (ACEM) at Oak Ridge in real time, while the teams at Oak Ridge and Georgia can use the nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) facility at Imperial. With these individual pieces of equipment worth millions of pounds, Dr Ian Gould, Senior Lecturer in Biological and Biophysical Chemistry at Imperial, explains that the new set-up, which was at the more meagre cost of tens of thousands of pounds (including AtlanTICC Alliance studentships), 'is a great way to use pieces of hardware that you would not normally have access to. You simply [ship] a sample across'. A cap of about 160 megabits of data per second has been set.

Gould adds, 'The major difference between this and other networks is that the connection is pretty much instantaneous. [In] broadband, you are limited by contention - there are other people using it. LamdaRail is essentially a private network. We are, to the best of our knowledge, the only university in the UK to tap into this, [although] other universities are connected up.

With only about six ACEMs in use worldwide, Dr James Perkins, a Research Associate at the Department of Materials at Imperial, is visibly excited about operating this relatively new equipment. An electron probe that is smaller than one Ångstrom in diameter is used to identify and analyse individual atoms. 'It is surpassing all previous technologies in terms of resolution,' says Perkins. 'While we have the monochromated Titan [microscope], which is fantastic for analysis work, we do not have an aberration corrector. They are complementary technologies.

Perkins adds, 'We [can look] directly at the computer that is running the microscope. There is nothing that they in the US see that we can't. Once the sample is loaded, we can control the microscope and start Z-contrast imaging.' Eventually, it is hoped that the Titan will also be made available to colleagues in the USA, while the team at Imperial see possibilities for accessing the high performance simulation 'super computers' from across the Altantic.

Alongside remote microscopy, high-definition audiovisual equipment enables truly collaborative research via three-way teleconferencing. The capabilities of LambdaRail ensure that there are no long pauses, echoing or stuttering. 'You can do work that is almost equivalent to having someone flown over and being in the lab. It is something I really was not expecting,' says Perkins.

Moreover, the team at Imperial believe the Global Lab is a powerful teaching device that will ultimately enable interactive lectures to be delivered, and students will have the opportunity to manipulate cutting edge equipment in the field of analysis and microscopy.