WALLA WALLA -- A small, clear box with several basalt fragments represents a key part of Courtney Porter's thesis project.Maria Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317.
Each fragment, though no bigger than a coffee bean, was trapped deep underground until recently, and each piece tells a unique tale of how water and rock interacted to produce minerals.
To the naked eye, the pieces give a hint of a story, in green and reddish shades of deposit clinging to the usually black rock. But under the precise beam of a scanning electron microscope, those slight deposits and crevices become valleys and craters, as the surface is magnified thousands of times.
Porter, a geochemistry senior at Whitman College, secured the basalt pieces from a dig at Wallula Gap through her internship this summer with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The group is exploring trapping carbon dioxide underground, to rest between layers of ancient rock.
"It's a way of keeping it from acting as a greenhouse gas," she said.
Porter is taking a close look at the basalt fragments to help determine what may have happened underground long ago, and to also help make predictions about what may occur when carbon dioxide is added.
In a boost to her research, Porter was among the first students at Whitman this month to utilize a $408,000 scanning electron microscope, or SEM, secured at the college a few weeks ago.
"This is one way I can actually see what is going on," she said about using the SEM.
Whitman College faculty in the geology, biology and anthropology departments acquired the SEM through a National Science Foundation grant. Recently installed at the college, the new instrument replaces a more than 20-year-old microscope that relied on obsolete Polaroid film.
The SEM is designed to take what is imperceptible to the human eye and magnify it onto a computer screen, producing easily shared or printed images.
Assistant geology professor Kirsten Nicolaysen was among the key faculty members who sought the SEM as a valuable resource to enhance research opportunities for faculty, students and the community.
Since the SEM's installation, Nicolaysen has led much of the orientation and training on the microscope, which combines sophisticated computer and imaging technology. She sat beside Porter as Porter analyzed her samples and the two worked together at navigating the microscope's beam over the object.
In a recent test, a fossilized shark tooth, a dead fly, and a small basalt rock each sat inside the microscope's chamber. On the computer screen, the fly materialized, revealing its large eyes and hairy body. On even closer inspection, the hairs were distinguished individually, so that they appeared to protrude like horns or tusks from the fly's seemingly massive body.
The SEM can magnify from six to one million times, Nicolaysen explained. And it has the power to zoom in on something as small as 3 microns, or three-millionths of a meter.
So cells, for example, can be easily displayed and explored using the instrument. The chamber of the microscope can also adjust air flow and control moisture so sensitive specimens, such as cells, retain their form.
Because a variety of departments, from geology, to biology and anthropology have an interest in the SEM, the instrument will likely magnify volcanic rock and fossils as often as it will cells or other living things.
One student plans to use the SEM to sample volcanic rock, while another student will study sediment from a northern glacier.
A professor in the anthropology department has plans to take a close look at debris from an excavation in Jordan dating back 8,000 years.
The SEM is also expected to be available for use by area educational institutions and students.