MS. REBECCA SHEIR
All right. We're going to head a bit north of D.C. now, up to Gaithersburg, to check out the design of a very special science lab. What sets this lab apart is actually pretty big. It's built for projects too small for the naked eye to see. Matt M. Casey as the story.
MR. MATT M. CASEY
Before visitors enter the NanoFab facility at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. they must first don an outfit called a bunny suit.
MR. VINCENT LUCIANI
Put these on the shoes. A couple of gloves. This is the optional face mask. It's personal preference, but the beard bags are just kind of more comfortable.
That's Vincent Luciani, the manager of the NanoFab. The full outfit includes a hood, goggles and plastic overalls. Together it covers almost every inch of your body, but these outfits aren't meant to protect the people wearing them.
Everything that we've put on to go in there is actually to protect the lab from you. Most of the bunny suit and all the stuff we're putting out here is to keep your personal particles to yourself.
Those personal particles could spell disaster for the work going on inside. Most of the multimillion dollar machines are so sensitive that a misplaced dust speck could spoil an experiment.
One dust particle, which can be 100 microns across, can wipe out an entire circuit.
The nano in NanoFab stands for nanoscale. Fab stands for fabrication. The researchers here work on structures so tiny that they can't be seen even by the most powerful optical microscope, the kind that you might remember from your high school science class. When working at such a scale, scientists need specialized equipment, not only to create their structures, but also to assess them.
We have a machine that you'll see in the back that can put down a layer, one-atom thick. Right? And with telemetry you can detect the presence of that one-atom thick layer.
To protect machines like that the lab's safety measures extend far beyond bunny suits. A series of sliding doors divide the 8,000 square foot area. A card-logging system allows experimenters to use only those machines on which they've been trained, then there's the ventilation system.
The entire ceiling is an air output. The entire floor is an air input. So you can't feel it, but all the air in this room gets changed over about five times a minute. So all the air is constantly moving down, so dust particles go straight down. Out in a normal office space or in your house, there's roughly about three-quarters of a million particles per cubic foot. In here there's 100.
While the lab itself represents a collection of design challenges, the administrative structure of the lab represents an interesting design choice. The Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, which houses the NanoFab along with other equipment and offices, allows any interested researcher to rent NanoFab equipment for an hourly fee.
MR. ROBERT CELOTTA
I should stress, it's a user facility, which means we are here, available to people to come and use our tool set in order to do this basic mission of facilitating technology, science, commerce.
That's center director Robert Celotta. He says the NanoFab opened in 2006 with the goal to help advance the field of nano scale science and manufacturing.
In terms of the research that's come out, one of our most productive programs has been a program which uses scanning tunneling microscopy to look at graphing.
The substance and unusual arrangement of pure carbon, has been considered a miracle material for everything from water filtration to quantum computing, but the NanoFab machines used to investigate that material carry such high price tags that it can be difficult for even large companies to justify their purchase.
The machines not only are expensive, but they don't last that long. Don't get the picture that they're wearing out, but they become technologically obsolete because the field is developing so rapidly.
The Center uses a price structure that rewards those willing to publish their findings. If a company wants to keep it's processes private, it's allowed to, but that privacy comes with a higher hourly rate. In the short time since its opening the lab has gotten very busy.
Five years ago we started with normal business hours of sort of 8:30 to 5:00. And we've extended it now so that we operate 17 hours a day. If you are a trusted user, that is you have passed the safety regulations, tests, etcetera, you're allowed to use the tools 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Celotta says researchers often have experiments running in the wee hours of the morning. Usually, those projects were started and left to run late the night before, but sometimes researchers can still be found at work in the lab at 3 a.m., which raises an interesting question about life design. But that's another story. I'm Matt M. Casey.
You can learn more about NanoFab and see pictures of some of that pricey equipment scientists use there, on our website, metroconnection.org.
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