MIT.nano, new Bldg. 12, projected to complete on schedule in 2018

Building to double amount of clean room space on campus and house vibration-sensitive, state-of-the-art equipment

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the building's chemistry teaching labs would be located in the basement. In fact, these labs will be on the top floor of the building.

By the time the class of 2022 arrives on campus, MIT.nano will be open to both the MIT community and the public at large, according to the latest construction updates.

MIT.nano is the brainchild of, among others, engineering Professor Vladimir Bulovic, the faculty lead on the project.

Since July, construction has progressed from the final states of the planning phase to foundation work. As of last week, the slurry wall had just been completed, and workers were preparing to install the cap beam and build a concrete diaphragm wall.

The engineering that has gone into the construction of MIT.nano is extensive, Bulovic says, in order to support the research that will take place there. In addition to doubling the current cleanroom capacity on campus, MIT.nano will feature an extremely low-vibration basement level that will host the most delicate of nanoscale imaging equipment.

Travis Wanat, the senior project manager, led a team that measured the electromagnetic fields and vibration levels at five different locations on campus to find the optimal site, which happened to be the site of the original Building 12.

A team designed plinths, large heavy platforms that can actively monitor the vibrations, located far below ground that will act as shock absorbers for the basement level. These will maintain the necessary, stable environment inside the building no matter what the conditions outside, which required “tremendous feats of engineering,” Bulovic said.

He compared the building to “an amazing watch, with a whole bunch of gears that need to work just right.”

The facility will be essentially open to everyone, said Bulovic.

Startups and corporations, whether local or from across the country, will be invited to apply for access to the various facilities after a training and certification process. There are no plans to house permanent labs in MIT.nano or to hire any additional faculty; the new spaces will be shared by existing faculty and labs. Bulovic estimates that the facilities will be used for imaging two-thirds of the time and for synthesizing physical shapes the rest of the time. He expects about half of faculty to use the new cleanrooms, with two-thirds from the school of engineering.

MIT.nano will be open to undergraduate students. There are plans for undergraduate chemistry teaching labs on the top floor of the building, as well as for the cleanrooms to be used as teaching spaces. In order to maintain the integrity of the research conducted in the cleanrooms, MIT.nano will use monitoring systems that automatically increase the rate of air cycling in the rooms if higher use or occupancy is sensed.

MIT.nano is designed to put MIT ahead of its peers in the field of nanotechnology for the next few decades. In fact, Bulovic hopes that “the world of 2030 will be happy to have this facility.” The building was designed so that it “can operate at a higher level than we choose to operate it.”

Bulovic is not concerned that public interest in nanotechnology is waning. However, he noted that the time it takes for a discovery to go from research idea to consumer product is an issue worth tackling. MIT.nano will do its share to accelerate the process from lab research to real world product by hosting prototyping spaces on the upper floors of the building where anyone can go to share their ideas and create immediately applicable nanotech inventions.

Wanat elaborated on some of the obstacles that they encountered during the construction process thus far. While dealing with the old pipework, the team discovered mercury in the foundation: mercury was not known to be poisonous when the original Building 12 was built in the 1940s.

In order to safely and efficiently lay the new foundations, Wanat’s team assessed the layout of the old pipework, which involved digging out archival hand-drawn diagrams from the original construction plans.

While the central location will make the building easily accessible to researchers on campus, it has also slowed construction since the construction site has only one connection to Vassar Street.

MIT.nano has been in the works since the early 2000s. Bulovic and his colleagues recognized that the Institute needed better equipment to conduct the desired level of research. According to Bulovic, the initial proposal was met with nearly unanimous approval.

For both Bulovic and Wanat, working on the MIT.nano project is “part of [a] mission” to make the MIT campus “a much more effective place for all of us to be more productive … meeting the needs of the social structure of the campus that engages … our everyday research.”

To ensure that the new building is properly incorporated into the rest of campus, hacking will be allowed in the new building — as long as, Bulovic cautions, it’s done safely.