Institute announces final design for new nanotech laboratory

$350 million facility will stand in the current location of Building 12

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MIT.nano from in front of Building 13, looking east toward Building 26.
Courtesy of Wilson Architects

Starting in spring 2018, MIT nanotechnology researchers will no longer have to go to Harvard to find suitable lab equipment. On Tuesday, MIT announced that it has committed $350 million to the construction of a new state-of-the-art nanoscale research facility.

Dubbed “MIT.nano,” this building will be located at the heart of MIT’s campus and take four years to complete. Construction will begin in June, but will significantly affect access to parts of campus near Building 12, the future site of the new structure.

Currently, most MIT nanoscale researchers either do their work in the Microsystems Technology Laboratories in Building 39 or in their own small labs.

“If you look at the trend of the young professors coming into MIT, the disciplines we’re developing at MIT, the student interests, the world needs — if you look at all of those, the component of nanotechnologies just permeates everything that we do,” said Prof. Vladimir Bulovic, the faculty lead on this project and MIT School of Engineering’s Associate Dean for Innovation.

Bulovic estimates that over 2,000 researchers will make use of the new facility. One of these researchers is Prof. Polina Anikeeva PhD ’09, who uses nanomaterials to develop minimally invasive medical treatments.

“For a long time, [nanotechnology] was just science and we were playing in the lab and doing measurements and it was really fun,” said Anikeeva. “But now it’s exploding and it’s really becoming its own field… Nanotechnology has entered every part of engineering.”

“Part of the reason why people keep using the Harvard facilities is because our facilities are crowded,” explained Anikeeva. “If there’s a line of, you know, 300 people trying to use [a piece of equipment], sometimes it’s easier to go to Harvard, and that’s what people do. Our students are really productive and they want to be in the fab all day long fabricating things, and all night long potentially. We just do not have the sheer space and the quantity of machines to be able to accommodate that type of intense traffic.”

With the new 200,000-square-foot building, Bulovic anticipates that there will be enough lab space for both MIT researchers and external users, such as startups and large companies.

Fundraising is currently ongoing for the project, and has involved MIT researchers advocating the importance of their research, according to Prof. Kripa Varanasi PhD ’04, whose work focuses on nano-engineered surfaces.

Although five campus locations were initially considered, Building 12 was ultimately chosen as the site of construction.

“Having a building being shielded from other road surfaces is very, very valuable,” Bulovic said. “You’re far away from the T line and the railroad line. The T generates a lot of noise, both electromagnetic and mechanical noise. Every five minutes, my experiment would be interrupted.”

Locations on the outskirts of campus were eliminated because MIT did not want to include offices in MIT.nano, which would have taken up valuable lab space. In addition to minimizing the amount of noise and vibrations, MIT.nano will also house cleanroom facilities. According to Bulovic, cleanliness is critical at a scale in which a dust particle is like “the size of a wrecking ball.”

Bulovic expects the future facility’s central location will allow researchers from all over campus to meet to discuss and share ideas.

“Our ability to innovate comes from the fact that MIT has such an easy way of crossing boundaries. You never have a sense of leaving your own department because everything is connected,” said Bulovic. “MIT.nano is meant to be a gathering community place. It is those impromptu meetings over a water cooler… that spark a tremendous number of ideas, and open up the vision of the opportunities.”

However, MIT.nano’s central location comes at the cost of a difficult construction process. Bulovic compared the construction process to trying to build a ship in a bottle. The daily routine of many MIT community members will likely be affected by the construction.

From now until spring 2018, no bicyclists or pedestrians will be allowed through the road between Buildings 13 and 31. Pedestrians will be able to walk under the overhang of Building 13, but no further. Pedestrians will instead have to go through the Infinite Corridor, while bicyclists will be directed towards Vassar St.

“We’re going to be crimping the style of the number of people,” said Bulovic. “That’s really, really unfortunate. It’s a consequence of wanting to be next to everyone in center campus. If you’re going to build something for center campus, we’re going to have to inconvenience everyone inside center campus as we’re doing it.”

Because of the lack of accessible roads, trucks will mainly only be able to deliver material through the opening under Building 39 at the side of Vassar St. Bulovic expects typical heavy truck traffic to begin at about 9 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. However, construction itself will likely begin at 6 or 7 in the morning.

“We’re building a building now that is meant to last 30 years,” said Bulovic. In the long term, he expects that the building will stand for 150 years, with periodic renovations in between.

Bulovic and other members of the project team will present their facility design and upcoming construction activities at a community meeting next Monday, May 5 from 3-4 p.m. in 1-190, and next Tuesday, May 6 from 2-3 p.m. in 10-250.

“Having these facilities right here makes it that much more easy to have the next breakthroughs,” said Varanasi, who also sees MIT.nano as a prime site for nanotech entrepreneurs. “I’m looking at the center as an investment that will lead to not only great science, but also great products.”