Protecting the Tiniest Research
Noise-free labs will foster ultra-sensitive nanoscale experiments
As computing devices have become so small that they’ve shrunk out of sight, far beyond the scale of human touch or intuitive perception, their components and the experiments that researchers must conduct on them have become commensurately sensitive. The sample under an optical or electron microscope in a nanotechnologist’s lab can be shaken out of view by imperceptible seismic vibrations, or by the stray electromagnetic field caused by a train passing underground a block away. The drift in the air-conditioning can cause materials to expand, invisibly to humans, but on the scale of molecules and atoms very long distances.
It’s a serious frustration at a time when nanoscale research is essential to computing progress. Today’s computing happens at the nanometer scale, and that’s where scientists are looking to make advances in performance and energy efficiency.
“Power dissipation has become one of the major challenges for today’s electronics, particularly as the number of devices used by businesses and consumers multiplies globally,” says Dr. Heike Riel, who leads the nanoscale electronics group at IBM Research-Zurich. “By applying our collective research with our partners in nanotechnology we aim to significantly reduce the power consumption of the basic building blocks of integrated circuits affecting the smallest consumer electronics to massive supercomputers.”
Standard nanotechnology labs insulate experiments usually just from one type of disturbance at a time, controlling for temperature or vibrations or electromagnetic fields, according to Emanuel Lörtscher, IBM researcher, pictured above. Over time and with increasing resolution, tools demand more advanced room specifications, making it imperative to screen all possible disturbances simultaneously in one lab. Six new labs at IBM’s new Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center in Zurich control for all of these disturbances to create a totally noise-free environment. The engineering feat will foster sophisticated nano research for the next 20 to 30 years, according to IBM.
To isolate experiments from ground vibrations, Lörtscher, who led the design of the new labs, and his team expanded seismic block systems—massive bases suspended on springs that are relatively common in industrial applications—from their usual one- to two-ton size up to 70 tons. “In combination with the active feedback control, this brings us to a completely new level,” Lörtscher says. “And these are air springs that we are using—the whole base is sitting on air cushioning and is hence floating. So if you switch off the feedback loop, you can move the whole base just with your small finger, it’s so softly suspended.” To avoid interfering with other experiments, each lab has its own base, which moves at less than 500 nanometers-per-second velocity, more than 1000 times less than a normal lab on the ground floor.
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