University physics research benefits from R5.3m investment

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s physics’ research profile has been raised thanks to the acquisition of a key instrument for material analysis, valued at R5.3 million.

The Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) and Raman spectrometer is the only model of its kind in the world, and will drastically improve and speed research processes in various materials at the university. Its arrival follows the launch of the R120m High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy Centre – the only place in Africa where scientists can research at atomic level – at the university last year.

The new instrument has been funded by the National Nanotechnology Equipment Programme (NNEP), administered by the National Research Foundation.

“Infrared spectroscopy is used for obtaining information about the molecular structure of compounds,” said NMMU physicist Prof Japie Engelbrecht, who facilitated the recent arrival of the instrument.

He said both techniques – infrared spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy – are used for optimal characterization of most materials (solids, liquids and gases) and are especially used in chemistry departments. However, other disciplines, like materials science and physics, have also recognised the value of infrared and Raman spectroscopy.

Prof Engelbrecht explained that optical characterization had the advantage of being a non-destructive technique, and was therefore the preferred method for obtaining the relevant research information.

“This particular FTIR and Raman spectrometer covers the widest spectral range available in South Africa and is capable of analyzing samples using infrared and Raman microscopy.  It includes a liquid helium cryostat (-263 °C) for analyzing extremely low temperatures.

“The optical range and its temperature control ability make this the only model of its kind in the world,” he said.

A launch of the new acquisition will take place Thursday 17 May.  However, the instrument is already in use on a number of research projects including analysis of semiconductor materials, natural and synthetic fibres, mineral samples, mammal teeth, proteins and chemical compounds such as polymers and rubbers.

Other interesting research for scientists using it is forensic work such as ink identification in forgery cases and paint identification in accident reports.

“We trust that the instrument will stimulate further research outputs and training of students across disciplines within science, engineering and health sciences,” said Prof Engelbrecht.

Professor Japie Engelbrecht, outgoing head of department, will manage the activities of the FTIR/Raman Spectroscopy Unit at NMMU.