Protecting the Tiniest Research
Noise-free labs will foster ultra-sensitive nanoscale experiments
To screen electromagnetic disturbances from nearby railway, power supply or mobile communication, which left their signature on experiments in Zurich’s old lab, Lörtscher and his team lined the labs with a nickel-iron alloy to form a complete electrostatic and magnetic box, he says. Standard iron-reinforced seismic blocks would have compromised this measure, so engineers used glass-fiber armoring instead. This is one example of the complications Lörtscher and his team faced when they set out to filter multiple types of interference in one environment. Another is the high airflow needed for temperature stability, which is enough to disturb the lab’s base. The team designed a one-of-a-kind air-conditioning system. “The airflow is not like in a clean room, from the ceiling to the bottom. It is actually opposite. So we inject the cool air through a perforated floor, and the air can actually rise and take away the heat load from the experiment, and this being removed through the ceiling. This is a very low-noise and laminar air-conditioning system, which does not excite the base due to its low air-stream velocity,” Lörtscher says. In the labs, temperature changes less than 0.1 C per hour.
To address the main source of heat, movement, and sound interference—the lab’s human occupant—each noise-free lab has an anteroom equipped with remote controls through which scientists conduct experiments. Some controls can even come from researchers’ offices, Lörtscher says. Keeping auxiliary equipment out of the lab reduces acoustic noise to less than 25 decibels, in this frequency range below the hearing level. In the photo above, Lörtscher is revealing a lab’s portal to an anteroom.
Though the noise-free labs were built to foster nanotechnology breakthroughs, their existence and the nanotechnology center that surrounds them, represent broader scientific opportunity. “The situation we have there can also be very beneficial for other disciplines. You can, for instance, in theory run an MRI scanner on its peak level, or do metrology on a completely new level,” Lörtscher says.
The nanotechnology center is the result of a partnership between IBM and ETH Zurich, a science and technology university that will also use the site. Riel says collaboration is another benefit. “The center also strengthens the collaboration we have with university partners, in particular the ETH, where certain groups moved here to the center,” she says. “You can go for a coffee together and talk about the research. You don’t have to travel an hour or a half an hour into the city and arrange a meeting. There can be much closer collaboration established, which is of the benefit for both partners.”
You can learn more about the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center online.
To read about Riel’s work on energy-efficient transistors, see “Switching off Waste.”
For a quick primer on nanoscale, see “Grasping Nano.”
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