Orion Berryman enters the basement and navigates the twisting hallway before entering the lab – his home away from home.

With a grin, he presents the University of Montana’s newest instrument, its complex tangle of hoses and wires powering X-rays and a photon camera.

On Tuesday, Barryman looked upon the space-age device as an owner might look upon a new truck. He has yet to name the instrument. Until he does, he refers to it only in scientific terms.

“It’s a single-crystal X-ray diffractometer,” said Barryman. “It’s a very versatile instrument. It’s a better instrument than I had access to at the Scripps Research Institute, one of the top chemistry schools in the nation.”

Technicians installed the instrument last month and Berryman, an assistant professor of chemistry, has spent his days getting it up and running. As the only X-ray diffractometer in the Northern Rockies, interest has been high, and for good reason.

The work that will play out in this basement lab over the coming months and years could help revolutionize everyday things. Scientists may develop new ways to extract heavy metals from contaminated groundwater, concoct new pharmaceuticals at the molecular level, or create a better catalyst by speeding the rate of chemical reactions.

“It’s applicable to all different kinds of researchers here at the university,” said Berryman. “For me, it allows us to design better catalysts. If we know how these particular molecules interact with the substrates, we can engineer them better.”

Engineering better molecules at the atomic level sounds more like science fiction than fact. But aided by the new diffractometer, researchers can now view a molecule in its basic composition and give it something of a nip and a tuck.

Berryman pulled up a three-dimensional model of a single molecule grown in crystal form in the lab. He noted the placement of the carbon and hydrogen atoms, along with a few iodine and chloride atoms tossed in.

Together, the placement, type and number of atoms give the crystal its own unique form. Seeing it at this level allows researchers to make adjustments, in effect, changing the crystal’s composition by starting with a single molecule.

“It may be this bond angle is too tight, or we need to put another carbon spacer in to optimize it,” said Berryman. “Once we see it at this level, we can go back into the lab and manipulate the synthesis, or make the molecule differently.”

***

The diffractometer looks like a simple device, but appearances are deceiving. Its function is precise, comprised of hoses attached to tanks of liquid hydrogen, X-ray lasers and a photon camera that runs on a shutterless setting.

On the business end of two highly polished X-ray tubes sits a tiny bit with a head the size of a needle. In the bit sits a slice of crystal doused in oil and frozen with a blast of liquid hydrogen, cooling it to 100 degrees Kelvin to reduce the crystal’s thermal motion.

Berryman then chooses between two potential X-ray sources – copper and molybdenum. It’s a decision he makes based on wavelength and the desired results.

“Copper has a longer wavelength, so it’s a softer X-ray source,” Berryman said. “Molly has a shorter wavelength, giving it a higher resolution.”

The results measure the diffraction of the X-ray off a single strand of crystal. As he explained it, the wavelength matches the electron energy. It diffracts off the crystal at a certain angle, which is measured and recorded.

“From that data, we can back calculate the position of the atoms in the crystal, and the type,” said Berryman. “We get a map of the molecule and what it looks like within the crystal.”

Berryman arrived at UM less than two years ago and he’s thrilled to have landed the diffractometer in such a short time. He applied for and received a $265,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, while various branches of the university provided a 30 percent match.

The Madison, Wis., manufacturer also provided a discount. The instrument’s research and development potential is promising, Berryman said, and interest among researchers in the Northern Rockies is high.

“I’ve already gotten requests from Montana State University, the University of Idaho and other labs at UM not associated with the project on campus,” Berryman said. “We’re going to set up a charge-back system for using the instrument. That’ll help alleviate the costs of running it and pay for the facility.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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