To spy an individual molecule in a throng of millions, to seize it, and to manipulate it. ... To arrange atoms into an ordered nanotechnology landscape of precisely spaced steps and terraces. ... To determine the size of an electrical current by tabulating, one by one, the number of electrons flowing by. ... To gauge distances in increments tinier than the radius of an atom. ... To measure the strength of a chemical bond between an antibody and a virus particle.
These and other extreme capabilities are key to the nation's high-technology future, the competitiveness of its industries, and the health and well-being of its citizens. They are essential for our nation to realize the societal benefits and seize the commercial promise of the nanotechnology discoveries now being made in laboratories around the world. And they are among the goals of more than 100 horizon-stretching research projects housed in the Advanced Measurement Laboratory (AML) Complex at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
Completed in 2004, the AML Complex has few—if any—equals among the world's research facilities. It offers an unprecedented combination of features designed to virtually eliminate environmental interferences that undermine research at the very tip of the leading edge of measurement science and technology.
Accomplishments at the AML Complex will translate into new high-accuracy measurement technologies, databases on the fundamental properties of "nanostructured" materials, and other essential supporting tools and capabilities. U.S. industry and its university and government partners require these infrastructural technologies if they are to succeed fully in scaling today's feats of molecular science and engineering into nanotechnology products and processes for domestic and international markets.
Practical benefits will flow to diverse industries and areas of need—from environmental protection to homeland security to biotechnology.
Scientists and engineers working to push beyond the limits of today's advanced technology crave stability. Even tiny variations in environmental conditions—a hundredth of a degree rise in temperature, vibrations from local traffic, a flutter in electrical current—can plunge the results of the most carefully designed experiment into ambiguity.
Consider the laser, one of the workhorse tools of modern research, used to analyze, print, scan, cool, heat, and more. Variations in temperature along the length of a laser beam distort the focus; vibrations misalign beam and molecular targets; and electromagnetic interference causes the wavelength to change, introducing errors that can dominate measurements and completely obscure the process being studied.
At the AML Complex, high levels of environmental control enable researchers to make the most of a growing assortment of powerful, but highly sensitive, instruments for exploring, innovating, and manufacturing.
Nearly eliminating external disturbances makes it easier to measure accurately—to know something for sure. It reduces uncertainties that obscure critical interactions occurring in exceedingly small spaces in the span of billionths or trillionths of a second.
The AML's meticulously controlled environment permits researchers to focus directly on still-formidable challenges, such as teasing out cause and effect, definitively linking structure and function, or simultaneously achieving high levels of specificity, sensitivity, and spatial resolution in chemical analyses. Their results will provide clearer guidance on the road to nanotechnology commercialization and practical applications.
Consisting of five wings, including two that are entirely underground, the 49,843-square-meter (536,507-square-foot) AML Complex houses 338 reconfigurable laboratory modules, and over 5,600 square meters (60,000 square feet) of NanoFab laboratory space, including an 1,800-square-meter (19,375-square-foot) cleanroom, with 750 square meters (8,000 square feet) at Class 100/ISO 5. While environmental-control requirements are tailored to categories of scientific need, no other facility of this size has so successfully achieved the combined features of strict temperature and humidity control, vibration isolation, air cleanliness, and quality of electric power.
The AML contains 48 laboratories to support research projects requiring the most exacting levels of temperature control. In 36 of these, the average room air temperature is controlled to ±0.1 degree Celsius; in another 12 to ±0.01 degree Celsius—a level of control never achieved in a project of this magnitude.
The AML's high-accuracy, temperature-control laboratories are outfitted with arrays of high-precision thermistors and humidity sensors. Electronic devices that change resistance in response to changes in temperature, the thermistors serving the ±0.01 degree Celsius laboratories were individually calibrated by NIST researchers to ensure a tolerance of less than ±0.003 degree. This extreme accuracy is necessary for input into the precision direct-digital-control systems serving the AML laboratories, keeping them within the hundredth-of-a-degree margin.
To prevent jostling during the assembly of atomic structures and to shield ultrasensitive instruments from all but the slightest quiver, 27 specialized AML laboratories offer the ultimate in vibration isolation. These modules are located about 12 meters (40 feet) below ground level in structurally isolated building wings, a first line of defense against vibration. Instruments sit atop specially designed, heavy mass isolation slabs supported on pneumatic "air springs." An isolated, raised floor system spans over the pit containing each isolation slab so that researchers can run their experiments without affecting the isolation systems.
The AML is designed to be the world's best measurement laboratory. NIST and its partners will be able to produce the measurements and standards needed to move key 21st-century technologies from the research horizon on to the factory floor.
The AML's Nanofabrication Facility, for example, will enable development, prototyping, and evaluation of dimensional references, specialized test structures, and nanotechnology tools and devices basic to efficient processing of real-world products containing essential nanotechnology components. To be operated as a user facility, it will provide NIST's collaborators with access to expensive nanofabrication tools and specialized expertise in a shared-cost environment.
Freed from disruptive environmental influences, NIST scientists and engineers aim to develop tools and methods that will permit now extraordinary laboratory accomplishments to progress to the level of practical applications. For example, in ongoing and planned projects, researchers will: