Behind thick glass windows, scientists wearing long white coats, gloves and protective glasses work intently on bulky metal machines in Engineering IV.
The researchers’ bodies are almost completely covered. Even one loose strand of hair could dwarf the tiny metals they are etching and heating under a microscope.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UCLA Nanoelectronics Research Facility, a lab filled with more than $10 million worth of equipment that has helped improve the research capabilities of the engineering school since its establishment.
Faculty, graduate students and local businesses pay an hourly fee to use the facility to conduct microtechnology and nanotechnology research.
Kang Wang, a professor of electrical engineering started to help build the facility in the ’80s on a small $200,000 university grant and donations from interested investors and faculty. He thinks the lab has greatly improved UCLA’s research capabilities and engineering school over the years because of the level of equipment it is able to maintain.
“Before this lab, our engineering capabilities were so rudimentary,” Wang said. “But now, it’s like we’ve made a scientific engineering playground.”
The materials and products tested at the Nanolab can have several physical and biomedical applications, such as detecting cancer cells in the blood.
The projects inside the lab involve elements so small that microscopic particles from clothes, skin and hair can contaminate them.
“If you were looking at your work from under a microscope and a tiny strand of hair got in the way, it would look like a big redwood going through a neighborhood,” said Steve Franz, the facility’s manager.
The 8,500-square-foot facility is considered a “Class 1,000″ clean room, meaning there are no more than 1,000 particles per cubic foot of air. A normal room would have about hundreds of thousands of particles per cubic foot of air, Franz said.
The cleanliness of the air is made possible by large fans built into the floor above the lab. Particles do not float in the air because of a technique called laminar flow, in which air is pushed down to the ground rather than circulated.
Wang said he helped build the facility because he and A. R. Frank Wazzan, former dean of engineering, recognized that UCLA needed to build an advanced nanotechnology laboratory to compete with other top-tier universities.
At the time, UCLA engineering research was conducted in a small, classroom-sized room where students just made measurements using less-advanced tools, Wang said.
They did not have the capability to make any devices, he added.
“I saw the future of engineering research was heading towards the nanoscale,” Wang said. “I felt that if UCLA did not provide this kind of facility, it would not be competitive.”
Local businesses also pay an hourly fee depending on the equipment to use the Nanolab to test out new materials for their products. The money generated from these fees is used to maintain and upgrade the equipment.
Opto Diode Corp., a company that manufactures high-power LEDs and photodetectors, uses the Nanolab for the plasma etching equipment and for backup for their own tools.
Roger Forrest, the director of wafer fabrication at Opto Diode Corp., said the facility has been a valuable resource over the years because he thinks it gives him an advantage over competitors who might not have access to advanced facilities like the Nanolab.
Universities such as Caltech and UC Irvine send researchers and students to the Nanolab to use equipment they do not have.
Jere Harrison, an engineering graduate student at UCLA studying free-electron lasers, said the research he conducts at in the lab is only possible because of the facility and its resources.
Wang said he thinks the lab is crucial not only for research purposes, but also for education.
The facility occasionally hosts workshops where high school students can learn about nanotechnology and make their own simple devices.
Wang said he predicts the future of nanotechnology will delve into the biomedical field and that UCLA’s lab will continue to serve as a place where new discoveries are made.