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Stepping Inside The 'NanoFab'

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Vincent Luciani, NanoFab manager, models the "Bunny Suit" as he shows off some of the center's nanoscience equipment.
Matt M. Casey
Vincent Luciani, NanoFab manager, models the "Bunny Suit" as he shows off some of the center's nanoscience equipment.

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."

The outfit includes a hood, goggles, gloves, mask and plastic overalls that together cover almost your entire body — and that's not meant for the visitor's protection. It's meant to protect the machines inside from the visitor's "personal particles."

"Some of the stuff we build in here," says NanoFab manager Vincent Luciani, "one dust particle, which can be 100 microns across, can wipe out an entire circuit. It can wipe out an entire device."

The "nano" in NanoFab stands for nanoscale. "Fab" stands for fabrication. The researchers work on structures so tiny they can't be seen by even the most powerful optical microscope — the kind that you might remember from your high school science class.

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.

The center uses a price structure that rewards those willing to publish their findings. If a company wants to keep its 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. According to CNST director Robert Celotta, the center started with normal business hours. Now, it's open 17 hours a day, and trusted researchers can visit whenever they like.

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.


[Music: "Circus in Outer Space" by Caleb Sampson from Fast Cheap & Out of Control]

Photos: NanoFab

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