Adapting to customers' imaging and analysis needs has been a hallmark for Rocky Mountain Laboratories, a service lab in Golden, Colorado with a spectacular view of both mountains and nanomaterials. When it was founded in 1983, the hard disk industry was thriving and companies flocked to them for their expertise. Then came solar energy products and medical instruments. The samples they now receive come from all over the world -- India, Spain, and South America -- as well as local customers. Some have their own analytical labs, but need answers faster than their labs can provide.
Scientists at Rocky Mountain Laboratories pride themselves in being nimble. They respond to the variety of projects they receive by learning as much as they can about their customers' manufacturing methods and their analytical needs. This helps to identify the reasons for any problems they find in the samples.
SEM is a large part of the company's business. A JEOL LaB6 scope with up to 300,000X imaging and an FE scope with up to 650,000X magnification do all the SEM the work they need, although they are older models. "We acquired the JEOL ultrahigh resolution Field Emission microscope - the JSM-6320F - five to six years ago. Then we got a huge project on carbon nanotubes and pushed it to see what it could really do," says Colin Davis, Materials Science Engineer at RML. Though it lacks some of the automation and ultimate resolution of newer FE SEMs, at the highest magnification they could see the wall thickness of carbon rings, and Colin says, "It's one of the coolest projects we've had." They have used it to look at fracture cross sections to observe thin film deposition in batteries, and ceramic substrates where they can see columnar growth or voids in the growth.
They use EDS frequently for bulk analysis, helping customers to understand the resulting data that shows a greater analytical volume than one would see with their Auger system. "Our job is to ask a lot of questions and find out what the best technique is to get the answers they need." Since surface analysis is the core of their business, they also use SIMS and SPM/AFM as well as Auger electron spectroscopy, XPS, FTIR, and cross sectioning/metallography.
"Our specialty is providing a very personalized service. We're not just going to give you your composition, we work with people to try to understand the problem they are trying to solve, and the root cause," says Colin. Sometimes well-known customers call and need to solve a problem that very day, and if necessary someone will drive to the customer to pick up the sample and turn it around quickly. Alternatively, the customer may come to the lab and sit with the engineer performing the analysis. Whatever they are looking at - from unknown black specs on a drug to ceramic substrates - they receive a full report and the data is thoroughly explained.
The company was formed 30 years ago by three engineers, and Jerry Dukes is now the company's third owner. Colin Davis and another materials engineer, Marilyn Andrews, as well as an analytical chemist, Patrick Stevens, Ph.D., are on staff. Colin studied microscopy while at Colorado School of Mines, running the JEOL JSM-840, an older SEM model that was fully manual and demanded a full understanding of the physics and optics required to operate an electron microscope, versus more modern, automated SEMs where you "flick a button and it focuses for you. It was a good teaching instrument," he says. "I wish they'd had the space to keep it." The first SEM he used at Rocky Mountain Laboratories was the JSM-6400, which is still in use.
Colin enjoys the interaction with customers and clarifying data obtained from the SEM as they watch him take a series of images at various magnifications and angles. The staff at are all members of the American Vacuum Society, Materials Research Society, SEMI, Microscopy Society of America, and stay current with the latest technology. Together, they represent 45 years of experience, and offer surface and micro-analysis services to the international scientific, academic, and industrial community.