NIST backs research at quantum measurement lab

A new state-of-the art facility at the University of California, Berkeley, for making precise measurements at the atomic scale has received a boost from a federal grant that will cover more than half the construction costs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology awarded a $10.98 million grant for UC Berkeley's Center for Integrated Precision and Quantum Measurement. The high-stability, low-noise underground research facility is expected to contribute to basic research into fundamental physics and development of practical nanotechnology.

'These areas strongly complement existing quantum-level research programs at NIST,' the agency said in a statement announcing the grant.

It was one of three grants, totaling more than $24 million, that NIST awarded to support the construction of university research facilities. The other recipients were the University of California at San Diego for construction of a Marine Ecosystem Sensing, Observation and Modeling Lab at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of Florida for construction of an aquatic animal health facility in a new Aquatic Pathobiology Lab.

The programs were selected from among 93 applications to fund development of research facilities that support Commerce Department research programs at NIST, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

UC Berkeley will match the grant with $8.7 million in funding for the center.

It will be located in the basement of the new Campbell Hall being built to replace the existing Campbell Hall. The new building will provide expanded space for the Physics Department, including the quantum research center, and the Astronomy Department. Construction is expected to begin in 2010.

The lab will provide a more stable, buffered environment than is now available for making measurements at the nanoscale. The environment will have low vibrations, low electromagnetic radiation, low noise and temperature stability to reduce interference with experiments.

'It is critical we have low vibration, low acoustical noise and low electromagnetic interference because we are trying to measure very small signals for these very precise measurements,' wrote Michael Crommie, the center's leader and physics professor, in a UC Berkeley report on the project. 'If you have too much noise, then it contaminates the measurements and obscures the science we're trying to study.'

The center's researchers will likely be making measurements at the level of individual molecules or even atoms or of a fraction of a wavelength of light. Any vibration of equipment could interfere with results. Under current conditions, researchers sometimes reduce vibrations by conducting experiments in the middle of the night when traffic is light or on weekends or holidays when ventilation equipment and elevators are not running.

The 10,000-square-foot facility will house 10 to 15 modular laboratories. According to NIST, research at the facility would include:

  • Application of atomically resolved microscopy to operating nanoscale devices so that dynamic processes and extremely rapid transient events can be observed at the nanoscale.

  • Quantum nanomechanics, an emerging discipline focused on the measurement and control of mechanical properties of nanostructures.

  • Interferometry with ultra-cold atoms, which has applications ranging from basic research on fundamental physics to ultra-high-precision gyroscopes and gravitational field detectors.

  • Solid-state magnetometers and amplifiers at the quantum limit, a precision measurement field with many applications for physics, earth exploration and medical devices that sense faint magnetic fields.

  • Advanced optical metrology techniques at the nanoscale.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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