The Cleanest Room on Campus

When it comes to conducting ultrafine research on a nanoscale, even one speck of dust could short out a piece of microelectronics operating at the atomic level.

That’s why a multidisciplinary alliance of engineers and scientists in the Columbia Nano Initiative (CNI) have spent years designing and building a state of the art new clean room at the Schapiro Center for Engineering and Physical Science Research (CEPSR). Designed to support projects in physics, electrical engineering, applied physics, mechanical engineering, and chemistry, the clean room is a place where makeup and cologne are forbidden, where adhesive doormats strip contaminants from soles, and where donning gloves and an immaculate “bunny suit” to cover your clothes is required to even cross the threshold.

Along with a ribbon-cutting marking the official unveiling of the 5000 sq ft facilities September 15, CNI hosted a symposium exploring how the cutting-edge technology is enabling a range of research. James Hone, Wang Fon-Jen Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, noted that the university has long had some clean room capability—but in recent years, that’s meant over 200 users across ten different departments were sharing a space intended for 30 people. In addition to safety and reliability issues, there was also no option to shoehorn in any new equipment. So, the CNI team set about meticulously creating these new world-class facilities to empower researchers from across the university as well as from industry and fellow academic institutions.

“The real work was not the space you see, but what’s behind the walls and ceilings,” Hone said, describing the stringent safety and environmental standards the clean room had to exceed. “We have the Mona Lisa of piping behind these walls.”

Visitors to Columbia’s new clean room must wear an immaculate “bunny suit.” Even a speck of dust could short out equipment operating at the atomic level. Photo: Tommy Lee Photography

CNI facilities director Nava Ariel-Sternberg outlined new capabilities—from a diffusion furnace for low-pressure chemical vapor deposition of several high-quality thin films to two new plasma etchers for handling various materials—and several faculty discussed how the new equipment will aid their work. Michal Lipson, Eugene Higgins Professor of Electrical Engineering, examined how highly precise etching of silicon is making it possible to transmit data with light rather than wiring, and John Kymissis, associate professor of electrical engineering and head of the Columbia Laboratory for Unconventional Electronics, talked about creating systems with desired properties by stacking layers of thin films. In addition, Cory Dean, assistant professor of physics, explained how his team uses graphene and other atomically thin materials to create novel structures with particular behaviors.

In a keynote talk, Ken Shepard, Lau Family Professor of Electrical Engineering and professor of biomedical engineering, talked about his work modifying commercially available chips to interface with biological systems for minimally invasive low-noise measurements, including his stacked nanoprobes of tiny needles, which can be inserted into the brain to provide over 10,000 channels of information. Also delivering a keynote was Colin Nuckolls, professor of Chemistry, who summarized his work designing molecules with desired properties, such as self-assembly into semiconductor layers.

“This lab is going to take what we do to another level,” Nuckolls said.

The daylong gathering also included a poster session highlighting research from CNI students, limited tours of the new facilities, and a toast to the beginning of a new era of nanotechnology at Columbia.

“Today marks the full operation of a shared facility for multidisciplinary research at the atomic level,” said Thomas N. Theis, executive director of CNI and professor of professional practice of electrical engineering. “It’s been a real sprint.”

— Jesse Adams, Columbia Engineering

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