Hold very still: Super-quiet rooms permit IBM nano research

Specialized microscopes within Big Blue's Zurich nanotechnology center are shielded from the slightest vibrations, radio waves, and even air turbulence.

One super-precise instrument in IBM's noise-free rooms is this spin-polarized scanning electron microscope, which can be used to gauge the exact details about magnetic materials. Samples that researchers investigate are placed inside a chamber with a vacuum as hard as in space above Earth.
One super-precise instrument in IBM's noise-free rooms is this spin-polarized scanning electron microscope, which can be used to gauge the exact details about magnetic materials. Samples that researchers investigate are placed inside a chamber with a vacuum as hard as in space above Earth. Stephen Shankland/CNET

ZURICH, Switzerland -- It's not so awful for most city dwellers when a passing subway train causes rumbling vibrations in the floor. But that sort of noise can make work impossible for a nanotechnology researcher trying to scrutinize atomic-scale phenomena.

That's why IBM has just finished building new noise-free labs at its Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center. The labs, which IBM showed off Wednesday during a news media tour at its research facilities here, are designed to block out just about every kind of disturbance to IBM's super-precise microscopes -- vibrations, audio and radio noise, magnetic fields, and even turbulent air.

It doesn't come cheap. The rooms cost about $50,000 per square foot to build, IBM researchers said in a paper published this August in the journal Nanoscale.

One device the specialized environment enables is a spin-polarized scanning electron microscope (spin-SEM), which can be used to study the precise orientation of electrons so researchers can deduce properties of magnetic materials. Another is a transmission electron microscope, which can pick out features measuring less than one 10 billionth of a meter -- the width of a hydrogen atom -- so scientists can understand things like the types of individual chemical bonds.

Disturbances can take several forms, but vibrations are a big one -- even from Zurich trains passing by five football fields away. Complicated and sometimes mammoth microscopes are therefore mounted on air-sprung concrete blocks that weigh between 30 and 68 tons.

IBM's noise-free rooms are shielded from several types of disturbances.
IBM's noise-free rooms are shielded from several types of disturbances. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Temperature also must be carefully controlled. It's kept at room temperature, which is 20 degrees Celsius or 68 degrees Fahrenheit, but monitored and adjusted to stay within 0.03 degrees of that. Even the airflow is carefully engineered so air travels smoothly and without turbulence, and LED lights are used to avoid heating from incandescent or fluorescent lights.

Naturally, troublesome humans who operate the microscopes are banished to a different room so they don't disturb the stasis with their own heat output and vibrations.

To avoid any problems from electomagnetic noise sources, IBM shields rooms using iron-nickel alloy cladding and Helmholz coils that actively cancel out electromagnetic field disturbances.

So no, your mobile phone won't work inside.

But if it did, your voice would sound nice, because echos are kept to a minimum with sound-absorbing baffles on the walls.

Rolf Erni, head of the Electron Microscopy Center at the Empa materials science research center, talks to a reporter next to a massive transmission electron microscope that can observe structures as detailed as individual atoms and chemical bond types.
Rolf Erni, head of the Electron Microscopy Center at the Empa materials science research center, talks to a reporter next to a massive transmission electron microscope that can observe structures as detailed as individual atoms and chemical bond types. Stephen Shankland/CNET
About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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