Interdisciplinary Science Building Opens Doors to Researchers

When Penn State’s Millennium Science Complex (MSC) opened its doors to researchers last fall, it inaugurated a new era of scientific discovery at the intersection of materials science, engineering, nanoscience and the life sciences at Penn State.

The 297,000-square-foot research building is the culmination of 10 years of planning and more than three years of construction, making it the largest academic building on campus and one of the most complex construction projects in Penn State history.

The facility is designed to the exacting standards of a world-class laboratory for imaging on the atomic level and nanofabrication in stringent cleanroom conditions. The north wing is devoted to materials science, while the west wing houses researchers in the life sciences and neural engineering. The two wings are joined on several levels to facilitate interactions between the two disciplines, and some instrumentation is shared in a common area.

Researchers see immediate improvement in nanoscale imaging

Even before some of the most advanced and specialized instruments were installed, staff scientists noticed a clear difference in the sharpness of images they were getting from instruments relocated from other buildings on campus. Josh Stapleton, operations manager of the Materials Characterization Lab (MCL), an open-user facility administered by the Materials Research Institute, saw dramatic improvements in the MCL’s new ultra-quiet space located in the underground laboratories of the Millennium Science Complex.

eye-shaped window opening
Peter Hudson

Fisheye view of the sky through the vibration-free zone.

“We had thought that this general class of instruments would work better, especially transmission electron microscopes, which are notoriously finicky,” Stapleton says. “But even with our workhorse scanning electron microscopes we have seen a big difference.”

He attributes the improvement to isolation from vibration. Each instrument lab is built on 24-inch slabs of concrete that are physically isolated from the rest of the building, so vibrations are almost completely eliminated. With future instruments that will be able to gather information at the sub-angstrom level (less than the size of a helium atom), this isolation will be even more important, since the tiniest vibration can cause significant distortion.

Another instrument that has shown dramatic improvements in performance is the atomic force microscope (AFM), which scans a sharp tip across a sample and records the atomic scale topography of the material.

“In this case I think it is a combination of acoustics and maybe temperature that has the instrument performing so much better,” Stapleton says.

The new MCL labs are equipped with radiant-panel cooling to control temperature gradients from floor to ceiling and with fresh air socks that bring air in at low velocity. The walls and ceiling are covered with fabric acoustic panels, and the rooms are also shielded with metal cladding to buffer the instruments from electromagnetic interference from the massive power panels that supply the labs’ electricity.

Central location benefits students and faculty

One of the first users of the MSC, Bella Ludwig, works in an off-campus lab as a research engineer for Penn State’s Applied Research Lab. Ludwig is also a part-time graduate student in materials science and engineering, studying the processing of aluminum powder for fuel. The instruments she uses in her research were spread across three buildings at opposite ends of campus.

“I spent a lot of my day driving around. I would have to call and set up appointments if I needed to talk to staff,” she says. “[Now] the research staff are all here, and I can just pop my head into a lab and ask them questions.”

The Millennium Science Complex is only a ten-minute walk or less from almost any place on campus, making it especially convenient to students. Once they arrive, the Materials Characterization Commons provides a central location to monitor experiments on computers loaded with specialized software or to interact with experts in materials characterization.

“The student might not realize what that means,” Stapleton says, “but the benefit of having all the staff and their expertise together when students are performing an experiment, instead of all spread apart, means that the quality of advice we can give goes way up. The fact that they can come to one hallway versus four different buildings and interact with people who have a breadth of knowledge of characterization techniques will clearly benefit their research.”

Bella Ludwig agrees: “It’s great to have the large white boards in the Characterization Commons where we can work out ideas. The research staff and other students are willing to jump in and give their opinions.”

Faculty in disciplines as diverse as geoscience and biology will benefit from the MSC, Stapleton believes. The building’s engineering will enable the ultimate performance from whichever generation of instrument they use. Beyond that, Penn State can now install the most advanced state-of-the-art instruments, with space to grow into the 21st century.

students and faculty working at whiteboard
Walt Mills

A routine moment in the Materials Characterization Commons: MCL operations manager Josh Stapleton helps graduate student Laura Ramirez with a problem while Trevor Clark of the MCL staff (left), and Ramirez’s adviser Darrell Velegol, professor of chemical engineering, look on.

graduate students working in lab

Ph.D. students Aba’ Al-Azizi (left) and Anthony Barthell, working in the laboratory of Seong Kim, associate professor of chemical engineering. Laura Stocker Waldhier

“I see possibilities for interaction with life science faculty,” Stapleton says. “We are using techniques that aren’t typically being used in the life sciences that will be extremely useful in their world. There was an energy barrier made up of distance that was dividing us. I think that will go away when we can get together for three minutes to talk over something rather than look at our calendars and see if we can find a time to meet two weeks in the future.”

Nanofabrication facility set to begin move into MSC

Over the course of the next few months, as the complex process of dismantling, moving and installing its multi-million-dollar instrumentation is completed, the Penn State Nanofabrication Facility, part of the National Science Foundation’s National Nanofabrication Infrastructure Network, will relocate from Innovation Park to the first floor laboratories and cleanrooms of the Millennium Science Complex. In the process, the “Nanofab” will replace some older tools and add new ones. Its new cleanroom facilities will double the space for nano- and micro-scale device fabrication, with an equal amount of supporting mechanical space on the floor below.

“The subfab is the most amazing part to me,” says David Sarge, the engineer responsible for the cleanroom’s state-of-the art construction. The cavernous space contains systems for treating vented gases, lab wastewater, and used chemicals; a tunnel dedicated solely to hazardous materials transport, and all of the mechanical systems that supply low humidity air, ultraclean water, and process gases to the cleanrooms above. And like the Materials Characterization Laboratory, the Nanofab is an open-user facility for students, faculty, and industry.

At the frontier where materials and life sciences begin to converge, a new science for the 21st century is emerging. Laboratories on a microchip, DNA and RNA as building blocks for nanoscale devices, multiscale modeling of living materials, artificial muscles and bioinspired energy materials are some current and future research directions for faculty and students working in the Millennium Science Complex’s laboratories and open-use facilities. “This remarkable facility,” says Penn State President Rodney Erickson, “will provide unprecedented opportunities for basic and applied research, industry partnerships and transformative discoveries.”

Last Updated February 08, 2012