Nanotech lab top priority for MIT

Search for perfect location to build nMaSS lab continues

Last April, President Susan J. Hockfield called the construction of the nano-Materials, Structures, and Systems (nMaSS) laboratory the Institute’s “highest academic priority” in a video outlining the MIT 2030 plan for campus development.

The nMaSS lab will bring together research activities and equipment that are currently in different locations around campus. It will gather existing nanoscale research — specifically projects requiring sensitive equipment — and allow for future expansion.

Nanoscale research is diverse, and happens in several of MIT’s academic departments. Some groups are working on integrated circuits, for instance, while others develop nanomaterials for electrochemical energy storage and conversion.

Associate Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88 says that MIT has needed a new nano-research facility for a while. He attributes this need to the physical condition of many current lab spaces and changes in the type of equipment used in this research.

“Our facilities are limited,” said Schmidt. “We have known for a long time that we were facing a day when we needed to improve our infrastructure.”

According to Schmidt, the new nMaSS lab will have office space and lab spaces housing the “most technically sophisticated” research equipment used at MIT, including clean rooms and ultra-low vibration spaces for imaging.

Planning, design, and site selection for the new laboratory is ongoing.

Chiefly, MIT must figure out where to put the new laboratory. For the past six months, the Institute has been looking at various sites on campus for the location with the lowest possible levels of vibration and electromagnetic interference, which can interfere with the sensitive equipment used in this type of research.

The Osborn Triangle — the site bounded by Main, Albany, and Osborn Streets — was originally thought the most favorable. However, measurements showed high levels of electromagnetic interference because of its proximity to the Red Line.

The Institute is exploring other sites on and around campus but is withholding names until a specific site is selected. Some of these sites are already developed, so the nMaSS lab will likely require the demolition of existing buildings in addition to new construction.

Retrofitting older buildings — as was done to Building 39 in the 1980’s — is very difficult, said Schmidt.

There is no building design yet, but there is a rough estimate of the amount of space needed for the new facility. Faculty with nano-research equipment and major labs, like the Microsystems Technology Lab and the Center for Materials Science and Engineering, have given input regarding “how much space they need and what that space needs to look like,” said Schmidt.

Though MIT does not have an exact pricetag on the project, Schmidt says these types of buildings are the most costly to construct due to technical requirements.

“We want to maximize its use,” Schmidt said. “Planning is critical.”

Progress on the lab is constrained by site selection and building design, as well as the fundraising. No date is specified for nMaSS’s construction, but researchers are looking forward to using the new space. “Researchers will say that we need it very soon,” said Schmidt.