SMIF Continues Taking Materials Research to the Next Level

2/29/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) has fostered regional and national collaboration in materials research for over 25 years.

SMIF researcher working with a microscope
SMIF Continues Taking Materials Research to the Next Level

In 2002, Duke University recognized a dire need for specialized research instrumentation for students and faculty to use on campus. Initially born out of a collaboration between researchers and the provost’s office, the Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) took shape as the central hub for advancing and supporting materials research at Duke. While the facility housed just two instruments when it began, it has now ballooned to include over 70 instruments overseen by a team of nine staff members.

Mark Walters, director of SMIF, says the facility most notably acts as a shared resource, open to all departments within Duke while even extending its abilities to external researchers both regionally and nationally. Collaboration across the many disciplines that make use of the instruments is key, not only within Duke’s diverse departments but also with outside entities and researchers.

Walters points to the diversity in the services offered by SMIF, explaining that they boast a wide range of capabilities in characterization, imaging, and clean room fabrication for devices, materials and structures. “From x-ray and optical equipment to scanning and transmission electron microscopes, our facility can meet just about anyone’s needs,” Walters said.   

Two researchers at Duke's Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility demonstrate how to use a
TJ Privette and Renata Garces demonstrate the capabilities of a newly installed rheometer at SMIF, including performance, operation and measuring tools

To foster an environment where researchers continue to use these services, SMIF prioritizes training users on equipment operation, providing both graduate and undergraduate students with the tools and knowledge needed for their work.

SMIF is also part of the Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network (RTNN) and the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure, which was started 24 years ago to “coordinate the nanoscale research and development activity of more than 20 federal agencies.” It’s a convergence point for students across departments and institutions to participate in interdisciplinary research in the best ways SMIF can provide.

The facility plays host to academic contributions as well, with Walters teaching a nanotechnology materials laboratory class that integrates practical experience with SMIF equipment into a thoughtful curriculum. 

A researcher in Duke's Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility using their characterization lab
Researchers have access to several instrumentations and rooms, including characterization labs

They also maintain an essential collaboration with the Duke Materials Initiative (DMI), which plays a critical role in advising on the selection of instruments and facility capabilities, tailoring SMIF’s needs to match the ever evolving landscape of materials research.

Renata Garces, a research scientist on staff at SMIF who joined last October to run the new Soft Matter Unit, has already seen the impact the facility has on students, faculty and researchers outside of Duke. She also emphasized the value of having a centralized facility like SMIF where researchers can access a wide range of instruments, which facilitates interdisciplinary research and discovery. 

Mark Walters headshot

What I’m looking forward to most with SMIF over the next several years is the continued support we’ve received from our institution and collaborators.

Mark Walters Director, Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility

The Soft Matter Unit adds to SMIF instrumentation, bringing capabilities like performing thermal analysis, mechanical and structural characterization, and also imaging of soft matter materials. Those same materials possess complex structures that make them share properties of both solids and liquids. 

“I’ve observed students who didn’t know a lot about mechanical properties coming from departments like biology or medicine,” Garces shared. “They were amazed by the ways these instruments measured the mechanical properties of the samples they were using.”

Walters is hopeful about the future growth of SMIF and understands that the facility’s capabilities are a key factor in recruiting new faculty, while showcasing Duke’s commitment to supporting materials research infrastructure. “What I’m looking forward to most with SMIF over the next several years is the continued support we’ve received from our institution and collaborators,” Walters said.

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