It’s not a much to look at from the outside. The long, low building just northwest of the Iowa State University campus could be classrooms or offices, maybe for a small manufacturer or a medical practice.
The offices and public spaces are airy and furnished in a style echoing IKEA. There’s no hint that the structure is unique in Iowa and rare in the United States.
But take a tour, as I did last week, and you learn that this, the first new scientific structure Ames Laboratory has built since 1961, is a near-fortress against even the tiniest outside interference.
The Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF), still awaiting its first occupants, can’t be disturbed. Really. And that’s what makes it a great place for researchers to make some minuscule discoveries.
I might say that the SIF is still in its shakedown phase, but that would be wrong. Nothing shakes the SIF.
The $9.9 million facility, built with federal money, will house microscopes and instruments scientists will use to examine and manipulate materials at the atomic level. When they’re dealing with something so small, even the slightest vibration can knock their views wildly askew.
Some apparatuses are so sensitive the operators must sit in a different room: even their heartbeats and breathing could send off ruinous vibrations.
In this post, I’ll tell you how the SIF shelters these delicate devices. In a future post, I’ll cover the instruments and what they do.
The Ames Laboratory, a Department of Energy facility ISU operates on contract, specializes in materials science. Their scientists (who often hold joint appointments as ISU faculty) create and test compounds for use in myriad applications, from new solders to high-tech magnets and more. That means understanding – and building – these materials from the atoms up.
The SIF, designed by Sears Gerbo Architecture of Tucson, Arizona, will house an arsenal of new and existing equipment to support that task. Most use electron beams to probe how atoms are arranged in materials, so the microscopes also must be shielded from the barrage of electromagnetic activity that bombards us from power lines, radio and cellphone signals and more.
Even dust is an issue; a mote is a mountain at the atomic scale. So when it formally opens in 2016, workers arriving at the SIF will change into shoes they only use there. Visitors will don booties like those surgeons wear in operating rooms, says Matt Kramer, director of the lab’s Materials Science and Engineering Division and my host on the tour.
Siting the SIF was tricky, Kramer says. Consultants considered several spots, but railroads, an industry that brought Ames to prominence, are a problem. A major east-west route carries several trains through the city each day. And moving away from the rails isn’t always a solution: A plot at the ISU Research Park south of the campus was ruled out as too near to traffic on U.S. Highway 30.
Ultimately, engineers chose land at ISU’s Applied Science Complex, already home to several research facilities. Although its access road crosses a railroad, tests found the site had the lowest vibration levels in the consultants’ experience – when a train isn’t passing, Kramer noted. And while the tracks seem close, they’re even closer at the north edge of campus, another location the lab considered.
To insulate the instruments from rumbling wheels and other shaking, designers incorporated an array of defenses, starting with the SIF’s siting: Its length is perpendicular to the railroad. When vibrations come from the tracks to the south, the building “is like a ship, breaking the waves” to deflect them, Kramer said.
Below, footings are angled for stability and the foundation is a two-foot slab of concrete sandwiching at least one layer of a spring-like material. Walls and ceilings also are concrete, but none of it contains steel reinforcing rods: Engineers replaced them with non-ferrous materials like fiberglass to minimize electromagnetic conduction.
The SIF is sliced lengthwise into five sections. The westernmost finger, on the back side, is a service corridor housing mechanical equipment, like heating and air conditioning and chillers to cool the instruments. The corridor is on a separate slab from the instrument rooms to avoid transmitting vibration and noise to them.
The finger along the building’s opposite edge, along the floor-to-ceiling windows on the east side, houses offices, a conference room and two labs (wet and dry) where technicians will prepare material samples for examination.
A hallway, lined with cool microscope images gathered in a campus contest, is the second finger, running the length of the building and separating the offices from the parts where the real work happens.
Just off the hall are control rooms. In most cases, technicians will sit here, remotely operating the sensitive microscopes in the equipment bays just beyond them to the west.
This isn’t like a control room for a hospital MRI, with windows looking onto the machines. “There’s actually nothing to see” and no patient to monitor, Kramer said.
Even here, precautions are built in. The floor covering is a conductive material. Copper strips connect it to the instrument cell floors to avoid developing transient electromagnetic fields that could disturb the delicate microscopes, Kramer said.
And look closely at the rolling lab chairs: copper chains dangle from them to the floor to avoid charge buildup.
The instrument bays comprise the fourth (from east to west) of the five fingers. There are six, including an unfinished, double-width space on the south end to house multiple instruments. “It was just as easy to make the building oversized” in anticipation of future new equipment, Kramer said. He’s already fielding researchers’ requests to locate instruments in the vacant spots.
The walls of some bays are lined with quarter-inch aluminum plating to block external electromagnetic signals. Electrical conduits and the hardware holding everything together also are non-conducting to avoid transmitting or creating electromagnetic interference.
There’s even a twist to the wiring – literally. Moving electrons create magnetic fields, so technicians installing the electric cables spiraled them to concentrate those fields and limit the interference they may cause.
Instrument bay doors must remain closed at all times to maintain a constant temperature; a high-tech thermostat tracks even tiny changes and quickly corrects them. Heating and cooling is specially designed to silently circulate air on the perimeter of the room, avoiding drafts directly on the microscopes.
The SIF is an indication that Ames Lab’s status in the DOE laboratory system is rising. It’s a minor player, overshadowed by giants like Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago and Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but with DOE locating its Critical Materials Institute at Ames in 2013 and the SIF opening in 2016, Ames Lab is getting some attention.
With the new facility and its devices, “We’ll be able to do a lot of the state of the art (materials) characterization that only a few other facilities” around the country have, Kramer says. “It’s going to be a big boon” for the lab and ISU.
Next time: the tools that will provide that state-of-the-art capacity.