Searle Chemistry Lab cleanroom to catalyze interdisciplinary nanoscience at UChicago

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

The University of Chicago has opened a new multi-user cleanroom equipped with nanofabrication tools for fundamental research in biomedicine and nanotechnology.

“This facility is the University’s first controlled-environment laboratory for nanoscience research, and will impact diverse research programs that have applications spanning biomedicine, solar energy technology, quantum materials and other areas,” said Michael Hopkins, a professor in chemistry who led the effort to establish the cleanroom.

While other cleanrooms at the University are dedicated to specific purposes, this new one is open to the entire UChicago research community, providing a common set of tools to the University’s scientists and engineers. The cleanroom will facilitate the research of physical and biological scientists and molecular engineers at UChicago, noted Donald Levy, vice president for research and for national laboratories.

“The fact that the cleanroom will be a central meeting ground for researchers across campus with common scientific needs but disparate research interests means it is likely to catalyze new cross-disciplinary collaborations that could result in novel approaches to solving important problems,” Levy said.

Researchers in the Institute for Molecular Engineering are tackling some of these problems.

“The Searle Chemistry Lab cleanroom is already being used in the institute by my own group as well as by the research groups of David Awschalom and Paul Nealey, working on building devices from microfluidics to patterned polymer surfaces to semiconductor nanostructures,” said Matthew Tirrell, the institute’s Pritzker Director. “The proximity and accessibility to the institute are major assets.”

A $1 million grant from the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust enabled the University to equip the new cleanroom with the nanofabrication tools. Along with $500,000 in matching funds from the University, the Searle Funds grant paid for five major pieces of lithographic, etching and fabrication equipment. Initially a mainstay of the semiconductor fabrication industry, such equipment has become prevalent at research universities to create intricate nanoscale devices.

Hopkins also obtained a $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to help finance construction of the cleanroom, which began operating in December 2013 and will have a dedication in November.

The cleanroom and auxiliary areas occupy 2,680 square feet of space in the basement of the Searle Chemistry Laboratory, 5735 S. Ellis Ave. Different portions of the filtered space will be maintained at class 100 and class 1000 standards—maintained at 100 to 1,000 half-micron particles per square foot, compared to a million outside a cleanroom environment. In comparison, a human hair measures approximately 50 microns in diameter.

The cleanroom will filter out the vast majority of airborne contaminants such as dust, microbes, aerosols and vapors that could interfere with sensitive experiments. “When you’re conducting certain types of nanoscience research, you’re working with structures much smaller than a dust particle or a virus,” Hopkins said.

Other scientists using the cleanroom are Bozhi Tian, assistant professor in chemistry and a Searle Scholar; and David Schuster, assistant professor in physics.

Tian studies communication and signaling in biological systems ranging from single cells to tissues. These events occur primarily in organized structures, such as proteins, which have nanoscale dimensions. Tian’s research group probes these signaling phenomena by creating nanoscale electronic devices in the cleanroom that can be connected to biological cells, allowing two-way electronic communication with them.

These experiments require the chemical synthesis of semiconductor materials, fabrication of the nanoscale electronic devices and bio-sample preparation and imaging, all of which are accomplished in the cleanroom using tools unavailable elsewhere at the University. This work will make it possible for Tian’s team to monitor the electrophysiology of living cells in real time, and to externally enhance their responses and functions for therapeutic purposes.

Schuster’s research addresses a different realm: the experimental study and manipulation of quantum mechanical effects. These effects form the basis of modern electronics and lasers. If quantum mechanical effects can be understood and controlled, eventually they may be exploited to develop powerful new types of computer processors and memory.

Schuster’s group has designed and fabricated novel superconducting chips in the cleanroom that produce and detect the smallest waves in a medium known as superfluid helium. Available theories predict that these waves should make more than one million laps before dissipating. Schuster and his students are testing these predictions with their circuitry, which presents a challenge because the waves are smaller in height than a single atom.

For more information about the cleanroom, including how to become a user, please visit the Searle cleanroom website.