About Us

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Mission — Locations — History — Interactions



CharFac directly connects to the core learning, research, and service/outreach missions of the University of Minnesota.

We strive to:

  • Provide accessible materials characterization instrumentation for University researchers, maintained and upgraded by experts;
  • Develop and preserve the resources and skills for the optimal operation and research capability of our instrumentation, with an overarching goal of excellence;
  • Teach, advise, and mentor researchers and students to fruitfully apply the above instrumentation, intellectual resources, and advanced skills;
  • Make instrumentation, intellectual resources and advanced skills accessible to external entities;
  • Engage the broader academic and industrial communities in research collaboration, training and educational outreach.

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The Characterization Facility is located at three sites on the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities East Bank campus.

Shepherd Labs

A multipurpose research building adjacent to Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering as well as the Physics and Nanotechnology building. The bulk of this site is in the basement and includes a total of five transmission and scanning electron microscopes (with many analytical modes) plus FIB; ambient scanning probe microscopes (three including a large-sample system); wide- and small-angle X-ray scattering (seven systems including broad temperature control and in-line property measurements); photoelectron, Auger, FTIR and Raman spectrometers; nanomechanical probes; and visible light-based methods including optical microscopy, ellipsometry and microtensiometry. A light-ion accelerator lab on the 2nd floor provides ion beam analysis (Rutherford backscattering and related methods).

Nils Hasselmo Hall

Added in 2002, this site previously housed electron microscopes as administered by the Medical School. Now the lab contains three cryo-capable electron microscopes (one FEG-TEM with tomography and electron counting camera, two FE-SEMs including EDS and beam deceleration); various bio and cryo specimen prep labs (e.g., cryomicrotomes, vitrobot); and three advanced scanning probe microscopes (two customized/environmental and one tip-sensing infrared spectro-microscope). 

Moos Tower

Up on the 18th floor, a 120-kV cryo and high-contrast TEM is positioned within the Institute for Molecular Virology (College of Dentistry; since 2011)

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CIE era

The Characterization Facility (CharFac) was born as part of an NSF engineering research center (ERC): the Center for Interfacial Engineering (CIE), which existed from 1988-1999. The CIE primarily funded the growth of a cutting-edge instrumentation suite and established a culture of usership that remains today, substantially growing an industrial usership on top of the University of Minnesota user base.

During this period, the idea of housing a diverse set of techniques in one facility under a single administrative structure emerged. Thus was born a culture of access to variegated methods via a single doorway to training and independent use, as well as services to industry.

College affiliation era

Following the end of the CIE, new channels of support for both capital equipment and operations costs were developed. The assembly of funding from a diverse set of contributors is testament to the legacy of broad usership cultivated by the CIE.

As of 2000, the CharFac became both administratively designated and financially supported under the then-Institute of Technology (college of engineering, physical sciences and mathematics), which was rebranded as the College of Science and Engineering in 2010. This support included new capital equipment and later expanded to include operations costs. Also, CharFac began to receive funding from the first NSF-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC), a relationship that has continued and expanded to include operations support by later MRSECs, notwithstanding continual changes in the Interdisciplinary Research Groups (IRGs) funding by the MRSEC program. With the addition of bio-EM in 2002 and its expansion in later years, additional operations support ultimately included five other UMinn colleges spanning medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, natural resource sciences, and other biological sciences.

Beginning in the mid-2000's, a growing sophistication of instrumentation and the development of increasingly advanced protocols and methodologies resulted in the growth of collaborative research with the CharFac technical staff. This has applied to both internal (to U Minnesota) and external researchers, including many collaborations with industry via IPRIME membership, NSF GOALI or SBIR grants, or other Sponsored Project mechanisms. This trend is only strengthening with continuing advancements in instrumentation and data interpretation. While basic training followed by independent use remains a formula for the majority of U Minnesota users, an increasing fraction have chosen to bring advanced methods into their analytical portfolios via services and collaboration with the CharFac staff, as do most of the external users

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Serving higher education

The Characterization Facility serves educational institutions of many types. This includes research universities that need access to capabilities not available in house, mostly in the form of analytical services, though hands-on users are served as well. Either case may involve formal scholarly collaboration, as is increasingly common in the current era.

Four-year liberal arts colleges often lack access to most of the instruments within CharFac and wish to expand research opportunities for their undergraduates. In some cases local and regional faculty bring groups of students for tours and/or demonstrations.

Serving Industry

The major portion of CharFac’s external user base is from non-academic institutions and primarily industrial clients, ranging from small, local companies to multinational corporations as well as governmental agencies.

Current paid members of the Industrial Partnership for Research in Interfacial and Materials Engineering (IPRIME) use the CharFac at discounted hourly charge rates for instrument time on proprietary samples. In turn IPRIME serves as a vehicle to market the CharFac to industry. IPRIME members also may collaborate directly with faculty or CharFac scientists on publishable research at academic charge rates for facility usage. One mechanism is the IPRIME fellow program, which includes the option of training and hands-on work. 

Another option to all from industry is a Methods Collaboration (via the U’s Sponsored Project Administration), which like IPRIME fellow projects accrues time at internal rates. Here the focus is methods development, including time-intensive aspects like the exploration of different methods and the parameter space therein. The methods developed may be utilized in parallel proprietary work (which is charged at commercial rates).

Serving the Public and K-12

The Characterization Facility engages in outreach to pre-college students (usually middle-to-high school ages) as well as some professional societies (or their outreach recipients). Tours or demonstrations are arranged on a case-by-case consideration.

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