University of Chicago is pursuing big innovation at the smallest scale–all the way down to the molecular level.
This February UChicago’s Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME) opened the 10,000 square foot Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility, which features fabrication tools that allow researchers and industry to create and experiment with materials that make up the foundation of communications, computing and other key tech, housed in a “Clean Room” vacuumed of dirt and dust that can interfere with molecular-level manipulation of materials.
Since it opened, UChicago researchers from across the university have used the facility to work on physics, chemistry, medicine and materials science research. But since there are only a handful of facilities like it around the US, IME leadership wants it to be a resource for local industry and academic partners. After going through initial training, anyone can reserve time in the lab to work on projects for an hourly fee, said Andrew Cleland, a UChicago professor of molecular engineering innovation and enterprise.
UChicago is relatively new to engineering education–the IME was just launched five years ago, and the first undergraduate degree in engineering was just launched last year. But Cleland hopes that resources like the Nanofabrication Facility will help UChicago solidify its place in the engineering research ecosystem in Chicago and beyond.
Molecular-level innovation is key to pushing forward many important industries today, he said. For example, researchers working on creating an integrated circuit that uses super conducting metals, rather than semiconductors, which can be the basis for a quantum computer (which would be able to perform complex molecular calculations faster and more precisely than current tech). Cleland is working on a method of communication using quantum mechanics, which could send encrypted messages in a way that’s theoretically not crackable.
“In order to really pursue engineering in terms of applications to quantum science, to molecular science, to applications in energy, you have to be able to control matter not only at the molecular scale but at a scale that is between molecular and what you can do from hand tools,” he said.
The Nanofabrication Facility offers researchers the tools to do just that. Resources range from a wet bench for chemistry work, to optical and electron beam lithography tools to plasma etching tools. It’s all housed in what’s called a Clean Room, in which HEPA filters remove any dirt or dust particles that could damage molecular level work. To prevent outside contamination, anyone who enters the facility has to wear full scrubs, goggles, gloves and face masks.
Take a look inside UChicago’s Nanofabrication Facility.