Rickey professor designs facility to study surface physics


This story originally appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Marietta, The Magazine of Marietta College.

A quick glance at your cell phone, tablet or laptop, and you can gain an appreciation for surface physics. “When you look at technology today, the smaller and more condensed, the more appealing it is to consumers,” says Dr. Dennis Kuhl, who is a Rickey Associate Professor of Physics. “So the smaller the device, the more important the surface becomes.”

Deep inside a metal, an atom’s surroundings are symmetric in all directions. At the surface, however, the symmetry is broken in one direction. That broken symmetry leads to important physical effects.

This summer, Kuhl and Rickey Scholar London Bortell ’16 (Vienna, W.Va.) are building a Surface Science Lab on the first floor of the Rickey Science Center in order to study interactions between thin metal surfaces and atoms introduced to those surfaces. When David Rickey ’78 and the J & D Family Foundation donated $10 million to revive the College’s math and science programs, some of that donation provided an endowment to purchase research equipment, and it also funded summer research internships at Marietta for the Physics Department.

During his sabbatical in the fall, Kuhl focused on designing and obtaining components for this lab. Two key components for his lab were the sample mount, which must handle the heating, cooling and positioning of the thin metal film during each experiment, and an ultra-high vacuum chamber.

“If you want to study surface physics, it must be done on a clean surface,” Kuhl says.

The samples, which are gold films that are 150 nanometers thick, will be kept in the vacuum chamber to preserve their surfaces.

“A big part of what I did fall semester was to acquire the equipment for this lab,” Kuhl says. “In addition to the custom-designed pieces, I was able to find secondhand vacuum pumps on eBay and secondhand valves from dealers that were able to rehab them.”

Part of Kuhl’s sabbatical focused on designing the next generation of experiments that could take place in the lab and determined what types of equipment would be needed for the future.

“Down the road, we’re going to need to understand what’s really on the surface,” Kuhl says. “I see the need to eventually add an auger electron spectrometer. That’s going to be one of the ‘big ticket’ add-ons, but that’s what will be able to tell us what’s on the surface.”

Though the space that will eventually become the Surface Science Lab is currently a hodgepodge of cardboard boxes and bubble-wrapped gadgetry, the experience of designing and implementing this research space is exciting work for Kuhl.

“For students, this is one of the great advantages when you attend a small liberal arts college,” Kuhl says. “You can conduct original research one on one with a faculty member that contributes to our ongoing scholarly work.”