The centralized list of equipment and expertise opens the door for industry partnerships. Especially for startups, accessing the equipment available at the University would otherwise prove cost prohibitive.

“People need to understand core facilities and how important they are to collaboration, innovation and science,” Shannon said. “For people to find collaboration and innovation and advance science they need a place, and they need equipment.” Conveniently, people don’t have to look any farther than the University of Rhode Island campus. Scanning electron microscopes in the University’s facilities detect objects around 1,000 times smaller than those visible through a typical high school lab optical microscope. The fluorescence microscopes emit high-intensity light and measure the light reflected rather than absorbed by the sample to see details not possible with a traditional microscope. The Raman microscope shoots lasers at a sample to differentiate types of plastics at the sub-micrometer level.

The mass spectrometers bombard electrons at molecules in a sample and measure the resulting mass-to-charge ratio to identify unknown compounds. The X-ray diffractometer uses radiation to analyze the structure of materials. The high- pressure liquid chromatography equipment sends samples through a column with absorbent materials that cause different components to separate leading to their identification. Some of the individual pieces of equipment cost upwards of $4 million, making these instruments impractical for a single researcher to acquire and maintain. The core facilities acquired much of their equipment through a mix of institutional investments, grants and donations, including $2.8 million from the National Science Foundation and a six-figure gift by Shimadzu Corp., a Japanese manufacturer of scientific equipment. Much of the equipment resides in the $150 million Fascitelli Center for Advanced Engineering where the glass walls literally showcase research and invite collaboration. Inside the core facilities, the equipment empowers researchers to detect specific shapes and additives that offer clues to a plastic particle’s origins: perhaps a plastic shopping bag thrown


Natural Resources Science Director, University Research Operations

Photo by Beau Jones

URI Initiative Plastics: Land to Sea SPRING | 2021 Page 27

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