At IBM's Zurich nanotech laboratory, silence is key

The laboratory contains some of the most advanced environments for nanotech research

Inside laboratory No. 2 at IBM's new nanotechnology research facility, no can hear you scream. Once the heavy door is closed, the laboratory is essentially noise-free, insulated from electromagnetic waves and vibrations that can disrupt sensitive nanotech experiments.

The lab is part of a facility due to be completed next spring that IBM will use in partnership with ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich), a world-renowned research institute. The company opened the doors of the facility -- still buzzing with construction work -- earlier this week to journalists to show its progress.

IBM is investing US$100 million over the next three years into nanotechnology projects, which include atomic-scale and molecular switches and new materials that may prove to be a possible replacement for silicon, the basis of today's semiconductors. Researchers based in the building will also explore fields such as spintronics/magnetism, nanowires, carbon-based devices and organic electronics.

Nanotechnology looks into substances at a scale of 100 nanometers, or around 400 times smaller than the width of a human hair. When studying materials that tiny, the outside environment can have a disturbing effect, so isolated lab spaces are required.

IBM has spent about $1 million on laboratory No. 2, constructing a lab so sealed off from outside interference that it far exceeds the requirements of many of the instruments that will be used there, said Emanuel Lörtscher, an IBM Zurich research staff member who studies molecular electronics and semiconducting nanowires.

At first, the idea to construct noise-free rooms with such strict requirements was "a purely theoretical exercise" that took two years of engineering work, Lörtscher said. There are six noise-free rooms, each with about 250 square feet (23.22 square meters) of space.

Since temperature can affect the behavior of small particles, the room's temperature will not fluctuate more than .1 degree Celsius per hour or .5 C within a 24-hour period. The concrete used does not have traditional steel reinforcing bars but glass-fiber reinforced plastic, which reduces electromagnetic interference.

Wood has also been extensively use for flooring. Walls are covered in "mu-metal" a very expensive alloy used to shield electromagnetic waves, which must be blocked to less than 5 nanoTesla -- 1/10,000 of the earth's magnetic field. Other sources of noise, such as pumps and power supplies, will be located in chambers adjacent to the labs.

The labs are about 25 feet (7.62 meters) below ground. Although there is a Swiss Federal Railway tunnel about 600 feet away that runs electric trains, the lab isn't affected by either electromagnetic interference or vibrations, Lörtscher said.

"It's like a case," Lörtscher said of the laboratory. "You can't hear anything outside. Your own voice will be completely absorbed. We are hoping the tools will operate much better."

Other parts of the building include a "clean room," used for the microfabrication of dirt-sensitive components such as semiconductors. The clean room will be equipped for tasks such as wet processing for substrate cleaning and wet chemical etching, thin-film deposition on metals and dry etching using reactive gases, according to IBM.

Although IBM buys most of its instruments from other vendors, the facility will have a machine shop for customizing those instruments as requested by scientists.

Overall, the building also has been designed with environmentally friendly practices in mind. The roof of the underground parking garage, for example, is being designed to replicate a Swiss meadow with native plants. Geothermal pumps will keep the building warm in the winter and cool in the summer, with some power provided by external solar panels, said Paul Seidler, coordinator for the nanotechnology center.

"We're building this building for the next couple of decades," Seidler said.

The building also has other rooms that can be used as either offices or laboratories. Researchers from IBM and ETH Zurich will collaborate on projects and also do their own individual research. Intellectual property will be shared between both groups, Seidler said.

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Jeremy Kirk

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