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MIT Better World

By Tom Gearty

That’s the tantalizing promise of nanotechnology, and over the past decade researchers have made remarkable advances in our ability to observe, manipulate, and design materials measured in billionths of a meter. Take carbon, for instance. At the human scale it’s graphite, the brittle core of a pencil. But form graphite into a sheet just one-atom thick and you have graphene—an incredibly conductive substance that is also 200 times stronger than steel.

This extraordinary potential for game-changing innovation is why MIT is placing a big bet on small with the construction of MIT.nano, a 200,000-square-foot nanoscience and nanotechnology facility, says Vladimir Bulović, the Fariborz Maseeh Chair of Emerging Technology and associate dean for innovation in the School of Engineering. “The work that we do inside this new facility will impact some of the most important challenges of our time,” says Bulović, who is also the faculty lead for the project. “Issues of energy, medicine, the development of new computational paradigms. Building blocks for new materials. Accelerating manufacturing as we know it. And underlying all that, quantum science and technology.”

MIT.nano will place a single, comprehensive facility for researching nanoscale materials and processes in the heart of the campus. And its central location—adjacent to the Great Dome on the site of Building 12—is no accident: when the doors open in 2018, MIT.nano is intended to serve as a shared resource for more than 2,000 researchers per year from departments across MIT.

Because the tiniest vibration can derail such sensitive work, the building’s basement will be the quietest place on campus, designed to minimize mechanical and electromagnetic noise. And because a single speck of dust is a wrecking ball for nanoscale experiments, the building will have two levels of interconnected clean rooms. A prototyping facility for translating ideas and discoveries into handheld devices will sit on the top floor.

“MIT.nano will house the most complex set of nanotechnology tools ever assembled in a single place. Tools no individual investigators or labs would be able to afford on their own,” says Bulović. “And as a result, the entire community will have access to an incredible resource that will propel all of us forward.

“MIT.nano will be critical for research. But as important, it will enable us to provide education like we have never been able to deliver before. The new sets of nano tools inside our MIT nano facility will be a perfect training ground for both our graduate and undergraduate students.”

Beyond the tools, Bulović expects the central location and shared access to spark innovation simply by encouraging interactions among its users. “MIT.nano will enable convergence of disciplines. It will bring together physicists, chemists, material scientists, biologists, engineers—electrical, mechanical, civil, nuclear—all in the same place where they can go ahead and build the 21st century,” he says.

“We are extremely cognizant that we only have two products as a university: knowledge and people,” says Bulović. “Through MIT.nano, we’ll make them both much, much better.”