Virginia Tech is receiving a $670,494 National Science Foundation (NSF) award to develop a new instrument that will allow measurement of the motion of tiny samples of fluids, and even individual molecules.

William Ducker, professor of chemical engineering and the principal investigator on the grant; along with John Walz, chemical engineering department head; and Mark Paul, associate professor of mechanical engineering, have received the grant to invent and build a Correlation Force Spectrometer.

Ducker explained that very small objects such as nanoparticles vibrate because of interactions with their surroundings. The new device measures the vibrations on two neighboring objects, compares them, and uses this information to measure the properties of molecules in the gap between the objects.

Paul’s modeling shows that the instrument should be able to measure the motions of individual molecules. If all goes according to plan, the correlation force spectrometer will be able to monitor the change in shape of a single enzyme molecule as it catalyses a reaction, Ducker said. This should provide fundamental insights into the way that biological processes occur.

The NSF funding for major new instrumentation is the result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It provided this one-time infusion of additional resources to NSF. Only 28 percent of the submitted proposals to create new instrumentation were funded.