Researchers at Wageningen University & Research use electron microscopy, for example to unravel the structure of plants at scales of up to a tenth of a nanometre. Microscopists at Unilever also use electron microscopy, to zoom in on the structure of foods. Sharing their research facilities allows these organisations to make much more efficient use of expensive equipment.
Since the opening of the Unilever Global Foods Innovation Centre at the end of 2019, Unilever has concentrated all its food research on Wageningen Campus. The Unilever microscopy team is run by Lia Verhoeff: “We want to know, for example, how changing the ingredients influences the microstructure of a product, and therefore its properties. We also examine the effects of different processing methods on a product’s microstructure. To do this, we use a range of microscopy techniques.”
The Wageningen Electron Microscopy Centre, the electron microscopy facility and expertise centre at Wageningen University & Research, is just a four-minute walk from Unilever’s research centre. Marcel Giesbers runs this lab, which is open to the departments and research institutes on the campus. “It used to be the case that each department had its own expensive equipment, which was maybe used for just 10% of the time. That’s a terrible waste of capital.” By sharing research facilities, it is possible to have access to the very best research equipment while only paying for the time that the equipment is actually being used.
Shared Research Facilities in Wageningen
The province of Gelderland and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy are keen for as many organisations as possible, including research groups and businesses, to be able to make use of high-tech research equipment. They have therefore set aside funding to encourage the sharing of these kinds of state-of-the art research facilities. As a result, businesses and research groups and institutes are able to make use – under the umbrella of the Shared Research Facilities – of the high-tech facilities on Wageningen Campus, including those at the Wageningen Electron Microscopy Centre. The lab contains equipment that belongs to Wageningen University & Research as well as equipment that belongs to Unilever. This equipment is available for shared use, also by other organisations. Marcel Giesbers shows us an SEM, or scanning electron microscope, which can produce images of the surface of a sample at a magnification of up to 500,000X. As well as two SEMs, the lab also has a transmission electron microscope, which produces detailed 3D images of samples. Advanced equipment for sample preparation is also available, such as a high pressure freezer. Lia Verhoeff explains what this is used for: “The sample in an electron microscope is held in a vacuum, and we therefore need to make sure that the structure of the food product or biological sample does not change due to fat melting or water evaporating. By rapidly cooling the sample, a glassy structure is formed without ice crystals.”
Benefits of sharing
Sharing such relatively expensive equipment and facilities has clear benefits, says Marcel Giesbers: “Research lines develop quickly, and you wonder whether it is sensible for each research organisation to keep investing in its own equipment. Concentrating the advanced equipment in a centralised facility also means that it can be serviced by specialists. As well as the financial benefit, it is also important to work together to ensure that we continue to build on and maintain our expertise. Furthermore, small and medium-sized organisations do not normally have access to advanced facilities but with the Shared Research Facilities, they do have access.”