New Super-resolution Microscope to be Built at UH with $1M Grant

Keck Foundation Awards Funds for Device to Improve Technique for Chemical Imaging of Surfaces

A new microscope to be built at the University of Houston (UH) will give scientists a better way to study the chemical properties of an array of surfaces, running the gamut from plastics and metals to cells and water. Researchers say this will help in both environmental studies and materials science. Baldelli

A three-year, $1 million grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation was awarded to Steven Baldelli, an associate professor of chemistry at UH, to build the device. Baldelli is collaborating on this project with Kevin Kelly, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University.

“Surfaces are everywhere; however, studying their chemistry is a bit tricky since surfaces are often only one or two atoms thick,” Baldelli said. “Surfaces typically have different properties than the bulk of the material.”

The microscope that Baldelli’s group is building will allow scientists to get more information about surfaces. The current technique of sum frequency generation, or SFG, uses a laser and provides the overall surface’s chemical nature, but not the detailed chemistry of different regions across a surface and how they are reacting.

“If you look at a piece of metal, some parts will be shiny, some dull, some rusty,” Baldelli said. “The chemistry is not uniform across the surface. This new microscope will capture and provide data for all the areas. Current techniques blur the details of specific regions.”

Baldelli says that knowing more about the various regions of a surface will be useful to many areas of science, including environmental science for studies of minerals and natural water surfaces, as well as materials science for making different materials such as metals, alloys and polymers. For the new microscope, Baldelli is combining SFG with a technique called compressive sensing imaging, which will allow scientists to break apart the data into localized regions to see the reactions of the specific area.

According to Baldelli, the laser allows them to learn how surface molecules are behaving by looking at how the molecules interact with the laser’s light. When the laser beam hits the sample, the researchers recover the signal and analyze what happens after it hits, giving them data on whether the sample absorbs light, emits new signals of light or changes the polarization of the light.

Before receiving the Keck Foundation grant, the Baldelli and Kelly groups built a prototype to prove that the concept would work. Baldelli and UH graduate student Xiaojun Cai worked on the chemistry and laser optics, while Kelly and his student Ting Sun manipulated the imaging data for analysis of the surface signals. Their results were published in the Journal of Chemical Physics, along with another team member and UH alumnus, Bian Hu, who worked with the Rice group. The article is available online at

“It took a couple of years and was built with spare parts, but we have been able to prove that the principle works,” Baldelli said. “We’ve shown that we can recover the images and surface signals.”

The grant will allow the team to purchase a faster laser, giving them the ability to construct a device with improved image resolution and speed of data acquisition. With more than 50 groups worldwide using the current SFG technique for surface chemistry measurements, Baldelli says that once this new microscope is completed and fully tested, it will be easy for scientists worldwide to adopt the added feature of compressive sensing.

“About two-thirds of the groups using SFG already have a laser with fast acquisition,” Baldelli said. “Once we build and test this combined SFG and compressive-sensing microscope, other groups should be able to implement the technique without too much additional expense.”


About the University of Houston
The University of Houston is a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the nation’s best colleges for undergraduate education. UH serves the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region by providing world-class faculty, experiential learning and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation’s fourth-largest city, UH serves more than 39,500 students in the most ethnically and culturally diverse region in the country. For more information about UH, visit the university’s newsroom.

About the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
The UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, with 187 ranked faculty and more than 5,000 students, offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in the natural sciences, computational sciences and mathematics.  Faculty members in the departments of biology and biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, earth and atmospheric sciences, mathematics and physics conduct internationally recognized research in collaboration with industry, Texas Medical Center institutions, NASA and others worldwide.

About the W. M. Keck Foundation
Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical, science and engineering research. The Foundation also maintains an undergraduate education program that promotes distinctive learning and research experiences for students in the sciences and in the liberal arts, as well as a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth from low-income families, special needs populations and safety-net services. For more information, visit

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