Collaborative Research

Detecting cancer at a pre-cancerous stage, identifying chemical-warfare agents, removing contaminants from ground water: these and many more efforts are underway as the era of nanotechnology dawns.

The newest of the new technologies, nanotechnology is this century's gold rush to build manmade machinery from microscopic particles. Advanced microscopes invented in the 1980s and 1990s are able to control and manipulate these sub-molecular, nano-particles. By 2000, Intel had entered the field by beginning volume production of chips with sub-100 nm length transistors. In 2003, the federal government established the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), including an annual investment of $1 billion in nanotechnology research and development, and related sciences.

Academic institutions have benefited greatly from this initiative. University studies in nanotechnology and related sciences are receiving increased federal funding. In April 2005, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded Georgia Tech University and Emory University $11.5 million for a nanotechnology research program in cardiovascular disease. NIH also has funded a nano-particles production core facility for cancer-treatment research at the University of Missouri — Columbia. States, private companies and public-private partnerships also are funding academic nano-related research.

The nanotechnology explosion is affecting the shape and arrangement of university laboratories. Collaboration no longer is just a goal of lab scientists; integrating nanotechnology is a necessity. To remain competitive, universities must challenge their own assumptions about lab design and construction.

Changing faces

Three key trends in lab design have resulted from the nanotechnology infusion:

  • Collaborative multi-disciplines

    Interdisciplinary labs no longer include collaborative space; they are collaborative in themselves. Labs comprise space for chemists, life scientists, engineers and other researchers. To accommodate these functions, labs must combine semiconductor clean rooms, Biohazard Level 3 facilities, greenhouses and other seemingly disparate facilities.

    Collaboration and interdisciplinary science affect how designers program and plan labs, not only for research but also at the undergraduate level, so that students receive early training on how to work together. Traditional science departments have separated chemistry, biology and physics, but because of collaboration and new ways of teaching science, students are working in many disciplines at the same time. Nanotechnology is pushing this integration farther.

    At Purdue University, the new Birck Nanotechnology Center provides 185,000 square feet of interactive, interdisciplinary laboratory, cleanroom, office, lab/classroom and seminar space. The nanotechnology building is adjacent to the bioscience building, connected by a pedestrian sky bridge for easy access. Researchers are encouraged to walk between the two labs, sharing space and ideas.

    Twenty-four departments are represented in the nanotechnology center, including electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer engineering, physics, chemistry, veterinary pathology and archaeology. Not all these disciplines have labs in the center, but each are stakeholders and conduct research.

    In designing this type of center, architects found that some disciplines had specific needs and some had needs that physically opposed one another. These varied needs had to be balanced in planning the cleanroom, which is a big piece of the center. Most of the cleanroom is for semiconductor and microelectronics work, but a separate piece is carved out for bioscience and related disciplines. The conditions required for each cleanroom area are very different: for semiconductor studies, contaminants must be kept out, but in biological work, “bugs” must be kept in. The infrastructure must be designed to support the necessary air flows in particular areas.

    Other conflicting needs include specifying hard surfaces for one area that can be wiped down vs. surfaces in another that must be sterilized and saline usage in one vs. areas where saline is toxic to research work.

    To further resolve conflicting requirements, two gowning entry areas might need to be created to meet the specific needs of semiconductor or bioscience research. In essence, scientists could go from a biological cleanroom to a semi-conductor cleanroom without contaminating either.

    Many different sciences use the building, so a lot of researchers might use this facility individually and collaboratively. Nano-technologists are dealing with small work in various types of labs — chemistry, physics, biology, etc. It is the equipment in each that differentiates the labs. When the chemistry bench is placed next to the biology bench, researchers can learn from each other. They are inventing small machines, as well as working with the machines of life to find out how they work, and to make them work in different ways for disease cures, new materials and advanced technologies.

    To accommodate nanotechnology research, universities have options depending on their size and budget. Some may develop a dedicated nanotechnology center or incorporate nanotechnology into existing or new science buildings.

    For example, at the University of South Florida, a small $4 million “starter kit” nanotechnology building has been designed that provides all of the elements found in the larger Purdue center, but on a smaller scale. The focus that the institution has on nanotechnology and its size will determine which direction is best, but all are moving toward nanotechnology in some way.

  • Communications and lab design

    For science and research, the Internet allows primary investigators to share their information with other technicians, as well as other people on campus and in other institutions. Through shared technology, there is a larger critical mass when exchanging information.

    In a single building, a scientist can start a process in the lab and watch it develop from the desktop. The majority of the work is done by equipment on horizontal surfaces. A scientist can start a process and watch it develop through visuals with a camera or redials from a machine.

    Often, a researcher's work is now in modeling or assimilating data before going to the bench. This requires computing requirements such as modeling proteins or genomic sequences before doing the physical research. Additionally, analyzing the results of experiments is computationally intensive. One international laboratory already has demonstrated a data stream of 600 megabytes per second. Because this basic research now is performed on computers, lab benches are focused on conducting proofs. Total lab space can be divided between a wet lab and a computational research lab.

  • Basic design changes to the lab itself

    In today's laboratories, much of the advanced scientific equipment is too expensive for one individual primary investigator to “own” when it is not being used constantly. In response, core labs that offer shared equipment are being created, which are staffed with full-time, dedicated technicians.

This kind of shift in emphasis has coincided with a change in the amount of space devoted to infrastructure. Lab buildings must have computer centers and connections to support this data. As the equipment becomes increasingly complex and sensitive, the space devoted to its support has increased from 10 percent to as much as 50 percent.

Among these key trends in university lab design, collaboration is so critical that NIH grant applications now must demonstrate research-side interdisciplinary collaboration. The shape and design of new nanotechnology centers support this direction.

Kinkade, AIA, is a senior consultant specializing in programming and conceptual design of university, government and corporate science facilities with HDR Architecture, Inc., Omaha, Neb. Jamison, PE, is a vice president and the director of advanced technology for the firm.

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