It’s one of the most controlled places on the planet. At Australia’s newest nanoscience centre, the air is 100 times cleaner than a sterile surgical operating theatre, and even the slightest vibrations from passing trucks or radio waves are completely blocked out.
The Sydney Nanoscience Hub will allow scientists to zoom in on the strange processes that occur at scales as small as one billionth of a metre or second. In order to probe these tiny effects, the facility has been designed to have ultimate stability, says its director Simon Ringer. “We believe it will allow us to delve into the phenomena and processes that are happening in crazy small slices of time and space – that’s where all the action is happening.”
“When you’re focusing down on atoms, a tiny little vibration associated with someone walking down the hall can be like an earthquake,” says Ringer. “This means that everything needs to be completely controlled so that the things we’re observing are true and not the result of environmental disturbances.”
Temperature, pressure and humidity are all held steady within the building. Each laboratory is encased inside a Faraday cage, to shield them from electromagnetic radiation. Air passes through special filters to make it clean and smooth flowing, while floating floors allow labs to remain undisturbed by movements elsewhere in the facility. “This means that if people are walking down the corridor, their vibrations won’t be transmitted into the laboratories,” says Ringer.
The ultra-stable labs hold particular appeal for Michael Biercuk, director of the hub’s Quantum Control Laboratory, who has spent much of his research career realigning lasers that have been disturbed by environmental fluctuations or the pressure waves from closing doors.
“When I was doing nanoscience research at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, we were all perpetually frustrated,” says Biercuk. He says his team would have to spend four or five hours a day realigning laser beams that had moved because of temperature changes or other environmental factors.
“Now, we hope to be able to focus on the science and ask the big questions instead of doing the same things over and over again just to get things running.”
Research at the hub, which has been unveiled today by the University of Sydney, will range from projects developingnanobatteries for storing renewable energy, to efforts to understand the tiny bubbles released by our own immune systems.
Until research begins, the staff cannot know for sure just how stable the final facility is, but they are optimistic. “This is one of the most controlled spaces for nanoscience experiments in the world,” says Ringer.