A significant portion of the work involves materials used in solar cells. The work helps make renewable energy more efficient, though Heske believes the future of car fuel is in hydrogen — another research area his team of undergraduate and graduate assistants is exploring. Nuclear materials have been studied, and in other activities, Heske and his group develop ways to look at samples in situ, observing surfaces inside a battery while it’s charging and discharging, for example.
A sample’s journey into the heart of The Machine starts in twin gloveboxes where samples are prepared in an inert chamber – sealed with a vitally important piece of specialized scientific equipment.
“The key element is that FoodSaver from Target,” Heske said. “But it is the luxury version, the $149, not the cheap version.”
Once samples are loaded into The Machine from the gloveboxes, they are steered through its chambers and past its porthole windows, by rotating arms that handle the samples through slender-tined forks.
The Machine sports two vacuum chambers with electron analyzers, one from its original iteration in 1985, and one that was added after Heske came to UNLV in 2004. In those chambers, samples can be bombarded with electrons, X-rays and ultraviolet light. In the newer one, samples can be heated to 1,200 degrees Celsius or cooled to hundreds of degrees below freezing using liquid helium.
“I call it the surface scientist's dream machine because everything is optimized for surface science,” Heske said. “It's the best machine on the planet for doing this. The limitation is the manpower and the fact that it's rather complicated.”