Interdisciplinary science building opens doors to researchers

January 18, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When Penn State’s Millennium Science Complex opened its doors to researchers this 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 the University's 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 northern wing of the building is devoted to materials science, while the west wing of the building 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 of the instrumentation for characterization and nanofabrication is shared between the two groups in a common area of the building.

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 that were relocated from other buildings on campus. Josh Stapleton, the operations manager of the Materials Characterization Lab (MCL), an open user facility that is administered by the Materials Research Institute, saw dramatic improvements in their new ultra quiet space located in the underground laboratories of the Millenniums Science Complex.

“We had thought that this general class of instruments would work better, especially transmission electron microscopes, which are notoriously finicky,” Stapleton said. “But even with our workhorse scanning electron microscopes we have seen a big difference.” He attributes the improvement to the isolation of the labs 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 that the size of a helium atom), a small vibration can cause a large distortion.

Another instrument that has shown dramatic improvements in performance is the atomic force microscope (AFM), which works by scanning a sharp tip across a sample and recording the atomic scale topography of the material. “You can see a big difference with the data there as well,” Stapleton said. “In this case I think it is a combination of acoustics and maybe temperature that has the instrument performing so much better.” The 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 electricity to the labs.

Central location benefits students and faculty

One of the first users of the MSC, Bella Ludwig, works in an off campus lab on Science Park Road as a research engineer for Penn State’s Applied Research Lab. She also is 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 said recently. “The research staff are all here, and now I can just pop my head into a lab and ask them questions.”

For most students, the Millennium Science Complex will be a 10-minute or less walk from any place on campus. 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 said, “but the benefit of having all of the staff and all of 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 almost one hallway versus four buildings previously and interact with people who have a breath of knowledge of characterization techniques will clearly benefit their research.”

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 into and give their opinions.”

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

“I see possibilities for interaction with life science faculty,” Stapleton said. “We are using very well understood 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, the complex process of dismantling, moving and installing the multiple million-dollar instrumentation for micro- and nanofabrication will be completed. The Penn State Nanofabrication Facility, one of the 14-university-member National Nanofabrication Infrastructure Network, funded by the National Science Foundation, will relocate from Innovation Park to the first floor laboratories and cleanrooms of the Millennium Science Complex, in the process replacing some older tools and adding new ones. The new cleanroom facilities will double the space for nano- and micro-scale device fabrication, with an equal amount of mechanical space supporting the clean room on the floor below.

“The subfab is the most amazing part to me,” said 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 labs one floor above. And like the Materials Characterization Laboratory, the Nanofab is an open user facility for students, industry and academia.

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 or near future research directions for faculty and students working in the Millennium Science Complex’s laboratories and open use facilities.

Researchers who need information about using the Materials Characterization Laboratory should contact Stapleton at 814-863-2224 or

  • BEFORE AND AFTER: Two pictures of Indium Tin Oxide taken using the same microscope. The photo on the left was taken when the microscope was stationed in Penn State's Hosler Building; the photo on the right was taken after the instrument was moved to the Millennium Science Complex.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 24, 2012