Big toys for nanometer jobs (interview with alumnus Gertjan van Baarle, director of Leiden Probe Microscopy)


(interview: Marc van Bijsterveldt, www.leidenbiosciencepark.nl)
If you want to know what’s going on at an atomic level and need some equipment to get a good glimpse, just call Leiden Probe Microscopy BV. Gertjan van Baarle and his team will build you a tool that catches any nanometer detail.
Scanning probe microscopy is a sophisticated technology that uses probe sensors instead of normal daylight. By scanning a surface, for example by measuring current flowing from the probe to the surface, a probe microscope will make a very detailed image including the exact position of atoms. Gertjan van Baarle, director of Leiden Probe Microscopy BV: ‘It’s a Nobel Prize winning technology, originally developed in the 1980’s. It can be used to examine how surfaces behave, also under extreme circumstances. Over the years the technology has seen major innovations and new applications. Nowadays we’re also able to scan biological surfaces, to name one. Researchers can actually see where and how a specific protein crosses a cell membrane, for example.’

Leiden Probe Microscopy BV is a small company of six employees, with expertise in both physics and precision mechanics. Van Baarle: ‘We’re not a biotech company, but the Leiden Bio Science Park is still very inspiring as an innovative environment. Operating from here keeps us also close to the faculty of science, from which we originate.’ Van Baarle’s team not only designs and assembles probe microscopes, but also gas mixing systems and x-ray reactors. The equipment (see picture below) is really something different than the little plastic microscope we used to play with as a child…

Van Baarle: ‘Since we focus on high-end and specialized products, we naturally work in close collaboration with our customers. A recent order is to build a probe microscope that will function at a mere 500mK, so just above the absolute zero. One can imagine the challenge of using infrared light for spectroscopy combined with atomic resolution microscopy, and still keep the temperature near this absolute zero.’ Van Baarle is confident about the job, since his team can rely on quite some experience in developing technologies for extreme conditions, such as high pressures.

Another challenge is a new Horizon 2020 project. Van Baarle: ‘We will support research on new ways of producing graphene, the extremely thin layer of carbon which is used in touchscreens for example. Producing good quality graphene on a large scale is very difficult. We will play a role in developing processes in ‘growing’ this material on molten copper, which makes it much easier to get a very pure type of graphene.‘ If this technique can be applied on an industrial scale, it will affect the production of many everyday products.

‘Our work is somewhere between basic research and applied science’, says Van Baarle. ‘Our customers won’t just buy a tool from a catalogue. They all want something very specific. Our company and client group might be quite small. But through spin offs and licences our work can be of use in a much broader circle. Both in science as in the development of everyday technology.’