Engineering school and California NanoSystems Institute have planned to create integrated, state-of-the-art spaces
Marc Roseboro/UCLA California NanoSystems Institute
UCLA's high-tech capabilities for creating atomically tiny devices and materials are undergoing a multimillion-dollar upgrade.
The enhancements include adding state-of-the-art fabrication equipment to its existing cleanrooms - specialised laboratories where the air is free from dust and other particles.
The changes will allow researchers to build new generations of small devices, such as computer chips that mimic how the brain works, ultra high-efficiency batteries and solar panels, and even biological sensors for rapid and portable diagnosis.
As part of the upgrade, two existing cleanrooms will merge under a single operation - called the UCLA Nanofabrication Laboratory, or UCLA NanoLab for short. The new entity combines resources from the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering's Nanoelectronics Research Facility and the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA's Integrated Systems Nanofabrication Cleanroom. The upgrades, which began this year, should be complete in 2022.
The UCLA NanoLab is available to the campus community, as well as to researchers from other institutions and high-tech companies. Hundreds of businesses have already used UCLA's cleanrooms. The facility has remained active during the COVID-19 pandemic, although applications to use it are subject to campus guidance designed to limit the spread of the disease.
The upgrades are being made possible by a combined multimillion-dollar investment from UCLA Engineering, CNSI and the office of UCLA's Vice Chancellor of Research.
"This joint investment is an important demonstration of a strategic partnership with an impact that will extend across campus and beyond," said Adam Stieg, an Associate Director of CNSI responsible for the institute's technology centres. "Providing this type of advanced research infrastructure will accelerate the translation of early-stage scientific discoveries into new technologies and knowledge-driven enterprises."
Cleanrooms help prevent contamination of the tiny experimental devices researchers are studying or building. On a day with "good" outdoor air quality, there can be millions of particles of dust, pollen and microbes in each cubic foot of air. By contrast, the cleanest area of the UCLA NanoLab will have less than 10 particles per cubic foot.
The UCLA NanoLab will offer state-of-the-art resources for the fabrication of devices at the nanoscale - items so small that they are measured in one-billionths of a meter. Additionally, UCLA is the only institution in Southern California that enables researchers to work with biological materials - such as what's needed to build next-generation biosensors - within a fully functional nanofabrication facility.
Some of the upgrades will build on UCLA's established excellence in semiconductor lithography, the drawing of patterns onto the silicon wafers that form the foundation of integrated circuits. New equipment will enhance the campus's capabilities for subsequent steps in the process - depositing functional materials onto the patterns, etching away unneeded parts of the wafers and analysing the characteristics of the resulting devices.
This added equipment will enable researchers to work with emerging materials that combine metal with oxygen or nitrogen, with potential applications including greener electrical power and brain-mimicking computer chips.
"We're creating more possibilities for users," said You-Sheng "Wilson" Lin, who oversees day-to-day operations as director of the UCLA NanoLab. "With the new tools, UCLA investigators can be even more creative about conceiving their research programs."
The NanoLab location in CNSI will house a full suite of equipment to support most common nanofabrication processes. The location at UCLA Samueli, which is in the nearby Engineering IV building, will host equipment for specialised processes such as advanced etching and continue to be used as a teaching laboratory for UCLA students in engineering and the sciences.
Beyond campus researchers, one company that has used UCLA's cleanrooms is Carbonics, which makes energy-efficient wireless chips integrating carbon nanotubes, hollow cylinders of graphene that help lower power consumption and improve performance. The business's foundational research began at UCLA, and the company emerged from CNSI's Magnify startup incubator, which provides lab space and other support for entrepreneurs. According to Carbonics co-founder Kos Galatsis, the resources at UCLA were integral to launching the business.
"The facility has some unique capabilities when it comes to semiconductor fabrication that don't exist anyplace else," said Galatsis, the company's CEO and chairman, who was an associate adjunct professor of materials science at UCLA. "Our critical activities have taken place at UCLA, so the impact is tremendous."
Stieg said the investment in nanofabrication will have broad-ranging impacts.
"With our capabilities modernised and renewed, the UCLA NanoLab will provide a unique resource for Southern California," he said.