A user’s guide to DOE’s five nano labs


Articles by Candace Stuart

The Department of Energy estimates that more than 18,000 researchers from industry, academia and government agencies take advantage of user facilities at more than a dozen major national laboratories annually. In the coming years, that total will include more and more researchers involved in micro and nanotechnology after the DOE completes five new nanoscience centers that are expected to cost more than $350 million.

The centers, which come from the DOE’s contribution to the multi-agency National Nanotechnology Initiative, are designed to be shared with the research community. Each includes clean rooms, laboratories and the most advanced instruments for fulfilling a specified mission. Brookhaven National Laboratory will focus on functional nanomaterials, for instance, while Sandia and Los Alamos labs will concentrate on integrating nanotechnologies. Oak Ridge National Laboratory became the first DOE nano lab to open its doors for business in late 2005 with the launching of its Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences. More centers are expected to come online this year.

And that means opportunities to access the labs’ sophisticated equipment and talented staffs. Even centers that are not fully up and running have made their facilities available for outside users. Usage is free if universities or companies agree to publish their findings in the open literature. A fee is charged for proprietary research. Anyone, including researchers outside the United States, can submit proposals.

Have a technical problem that stands between your company and commercial success? Or a theory that needs a multimillion-dollar machine to test it? Check the following pages; Your solution may be close at hand.

For more information on the program and each center, visit

Argonne: Looking at the insides of molecules and their bonds

Argonne National Laboratory owns one of the world’s brightest X-ray research facilities in the world, the Advanced Photon Source. The APS allows scientists to probe beneath the surface of materials to better understand their structures.

Scientists will have that capability on the nanoscale after the Center for Nanoscale Materials opens in 2007 in suburban Chicago. The 83,000-square-foot building will be adjacent to the APS and will house the nanoprobe, an X-ray microscopy beam line that lets researchers look into molecules at resolutions so small that they’ll be able to determine the types of bonds being created. Better knowledge of a material’s structure may lend insights into how it functions, said Eric Isaacs, the center’s director.

Argonne’s nanopore array serves as a template for making nanowires. Image courtesy of Argonne
Click here to enlarge image

“We’re pushing the limits,” Isaacs said. Within two years, Argonne’s designers will have developed the optics to focus X-ray beams down to 30 nanometers, he predicted. “In three years, possibly 10 nanometers. In principle, we could get it to 1 nanometer.”

The Department of Energy gave Argonne $36 million to develop and build instrumentation for the center. The State of Illinois provided another $36 million for building the facility. They broke ground in 2004 and are on schedule to finish construction by this summer. The center, which already had launched an early access users program, will be open to users this year. It will be fully operational by the fall of 2007.

The overarching goal at Argonne will be to create and better understand new nanomaterials, with research themes that build off Argonne’s existing strengths. Those include nanomagnetics and electronics, and organic-inorganic hybrid structures. Nanomagnetic structures may lead to more efficient motors, for instance, while hybrids may be used in energy storage and conversion.

The center also takes advantage of other resources at Argonne, such as its Electron Microscopy Center and the Intense Pulsed Neutron Source. But for nanoscientists, Argonne’s gem is likely to be the combination of the APS and the nanoprobe. The tools will help researchers not only make new materials, but also visualize and understand them.

The Center for Nanoscale Materials will be connected to the ring-shaped Advanced Photon Source. Illustration courtesy of Argonne
Click here to enlarge image

“This is a tremendous opportunity for synthesizing and making materials,” Isaacs said. “We have the APS for understanding stuff, right next to the place where you can characterize them.”

Advanced Diamond Technologies, an Argonne spinout that specializes in nanocrystalline diamond films, already has entered the users program, Isaacs said. He estimated that about a third to a quarter of participants would come from industry when the program is fully operational. “They’re looking to fill a gap in a big way,” he said. “They have a vision but they don’t have the resources.”

Besides offering one-of-a-kind equipment like the nanoprobe, the center will have another draw, Isaacs pointed out. “We have very smart, expert people.”

Brookhaven: Tailoring nanomaterials to solve energy problems

The State of New York sees nanotechnology and energy as two areas of potential economic growth and leadership. For good reason: It is home to leading nanotechnology research programs like Columbia, Cornell, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), and Albany NanoTech. New York serves as the headquarters for corporate giants IBM and General Electric, who look at nano-based energy from the extremes of power-saving nanoelectronics to power-creating generators. And it has been the birthplace of startups like NanoDynamics that pursue energy applications.

Add to that mixture the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton and its $81 million Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN). The center will allow researchers to create tailor-made nanomaterials, with an emphasis on technologies that apply to energy.

CFN will lift nanotechnology research beyond imaging and fabrication to the level of precisely controlled structures that perform specific tasks, said Robert Hwang, center director. “We got here because we’ve developed so much machinery to see things, and chemical synthesis techniques to make things. What’s missing? We want to not only see and not only make things; we want to make materials by design.”

Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials is scheduled to be fully operational in 2008. Illustration courtesy of Brookhaven
Click here to enlarge image

Brookhaven began construction on the 94,500-square-foot facility in 2005 and has a target date of 2007 for final construction and 2008 for being fully operational. The center will be located next to the National Synchrotron Light Sources (NSLS), and will include a set of end stations on beam lines to the NSLS. It also will house five laboratory clusters and a theory and computation center.

Research projects will be based on the three themes of nanocatalysts, nanoelectronics and biological and soft nanomaterials. While much of the focus will be on understanding how functional nanomaterials form and how they react in certain environments, Brookhaven will also be looking at how these technologies may be used in energy applications.

“Energy is a tremendous challenge to this nation and the world,” Hwang said. “We want to develop functional nanomaterials that impact energy usage, production and efficiency.”

Through the center, researchers will have access to instruments for imaging atomic and molecular structures, fabrication facilities and clean rooms. The NSLS offers an X-ray ring and a vacuum ultraviolet ring that can produce a spectrum of intense light for probing materials. Brookhaven’s Laser-Electron Accelerator Facility can be used for studying phenomena such as charge transport between molecules.

The new and existing instruments will let researchers examine materials as they form and as they are exposed to various environments. “We’ll be able to watch them (materials) while they are being made, and see how they function in a real environment,” Hwang said. “We’ll see how the structure evolves during a reaction - see the chemistry of it.”

Understanding how a material forms, and controlling that formation, would lead to tailor-made nanomaterials with a set of desired properties and precise functions. The designer materials could enhance New York-based initiatives such as the partially state-funded Center for Future Energy Systems. RPI, in partnership with Cornell University and Brookhaven, opened the $20 million center last year to foster innovation and commercialization of fuel cells and other technologies that conserve energy or provide renewable energy resources.

Lawrence Berkeley: Giving innovators tools to succeed

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have had no shortage of world-class instruments to try to achieve their goals. The lab, located next to the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, owns one of the world’s brightest sources for ultraviolet and soft X-ray beams, an electron microscopy center and one of the world’s largest computing centers. This year it will add another attraction to its list: the Molecular Foundry.

“The idea is to help speed up the cycle of innovation by making available (equipment) for making materials,” said Paul Alivisatos, a chemist at UC Berkeley and director of the Molecular Foundry, soon after accepting the foundry position. “This will enable everyone to operate close to the state of the art.”

Berkeley Lab broke ground on the $85 million, 94,500-square-foot facility in 2004 and is expected to complete equipment installation and begin scientific operations this year. The six-story building will devote each floor to a specific research theme: inorganic nanostructures; nanofabrication; organic polymer/biopolymer synthesis; biological nanostructures; imaging and manipulation; and theory.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is bordered by the University of California, Berkeley campus and is near the San Francisco Bay. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Lab
Click here to enlarge image

The nanofabrication facility will include lithographic and thin-film processing tools. Among Berkeley’s assets will be its nanowriter, an electron beam lithography system with beam diameters of 5 nanometers for patterning on surfaces. The imaging and manipulation floor will allow researchers to design and develop instruments for making and studying nanostructures, while the theory section will provide theoretical support and principles to guide future research.

The themes build off Berkeley’s existing user facilities. Those include the National Center for Electron Microscopy, which contains world-class microscopes for imaging nanomaterials and developing new imaging techniques; the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, which provides simulation and analysis expertise; and the Advanced Light Source, a third-generation synchrotron light source.

To date, most user projects accepted by the Molecular Foundry have been submitted by researchers at U.S.-based universities and federal labs. But large and small companies as well as foreign researchers have begun to take advantage of the facility. The roster for projects accepted in 2005 includes IBM, Intel, Nanosolar and research initiatives from France and Spain.

Oak Ridge: Well equipped for looking at nanostructures

Oak Ridge National Laboratory was among the first of the Department of Energy’s laboratories to begin building a nano center in 2003 and it is the first to cross the finish line. Oak Ridge officially opened its Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences (CNMS) in late 2005, making it the eldest of the pack of five user facilities funded by the DOE.

But the best is yet to come. The $65 million center is expected to be fully in stride by March, accepting user proposals for not only research whose findings will be published in publicly accessible journals but also for projects whose results will remain proprietary information for companies that are willing to cover the costs. By the end of the year, scientists at Oak Ridge as well as visitors will have access to another critical facility for conducting nanoscience research, the Spallation Neutron Source.

Oak Ridge researcher Thomas Thundat uses the Photo-Molecular Comb, a tool that separates proteins and biological molecules for analysis and identification. Thundat has won numerous awards for his micro- and nanoscale research. Photos courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Click here to enlarge image

“The Spallation Neutron Source is not completed yet, so what we’re doing now is focusing on the development of the community and the instrumentation that will allow us to do nanoscience there,” said Linda Horton, director of CNMS. In the meantime, Oak Ridge offers an upgraded high-flux isotope reactor that has neutron scattering capabilities. “Where we think we will have a high impact is looking structurally at magnetism. ... Neutron scattering is one of the best tools for looking at magnetism and for looking at polymers and polymer structures.”

The intense neutron beams that both the Spallation Neutron Source and the revamped reactor produce can be used to study the structure and dynamic nature of nanomaterials. Such fundamental knowledge will help innovators link the nanoscale world to ours. “Beyond thin films, beyond carbon nanotubes, beyond small things that are in nanoscience, there is also going to be, in the longer term, a lot of interest in functional materials that start building toward bulk structures,” Horton said.

The four-story Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences contains lab space, offices, a nanofabrication lab with clean rooms and a Nanomaterials Theory Institute.
Click here to enlarge image

The 80,000-square-foot facility holds wet and dry labs and equipment for making and understanding the properties of nanomaterials. It includes a nanofabrication lab with clean rooms and a Nanomaterials Theory Institute. The institute taps into the computing capabilities of Oak Ridge’s Center for Computational Sciences, which can provide support for simulation and modeling.

Research themes will range from soft and hybrid nanomaterials such as polymers and biomaterials to hard, complex nanomaterials such as magnetic materials and nanocomposites. The center also will conduct work in nanofabrication, theory and imaging.

CNMS already has served companies like Seagate, Luna Innovations and NanoTek through its early access users program, and is now positioned to take on paying users who prefer to keep findings a secret. Horton predicted that some companies will prefer the proprietary research option because of nanotechnology’s sometimes quick leap from discovery to commercial application.

Sandia, Los Alamos: Getting the pieces to fit together

The Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT) is unlike any of the other Department of Energy’s nano facilities. To begin with, it is overseen by two national labs, not one. And those two labs exist under the umbrella of the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, and not the Office of Science that manages most of the DOE labs.

Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., and nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory decided to jointly develop a center that combines their strengths and capabilities. Los Alamos brought to the marriage its experience at running user facilities and research leadership in physics and biological sciences. Sandia offered expertise in microelectronics and a track record of integrating small-scale technologies.

The MEMS test unit sits beneath a black box that is slightly larger than the grains of salt placed beside it. Photos courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.
Click here to enlarge image

“Each lab has different but complementary skills,” said Julia Phillips, director of CINT and director of Sandia’s Physical, Chemical and Nano Sciences Center. Sandia also provides a chief scientist to the executive team, while Los Alamos contributes an associate director and the manager for the center’s user program. CINT has targeted complex functional nanomaterials, the nano-micro interface and nanoelectronics and nanophotonics among its key research areas.

The $76 million center includes a core facility outside the Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque that will offer 96,000 square feet of office and lab space. The facility will house a clean room and labs equipped for chemical, biological, optical and laser-related research. Los Alamos’ 34,000-square-foot building will provide space and tools for biosciences and nanomaterials research.

Construction at both sites started in 2004 and wrapped up in late 2005. Los Alamos is expected to launch initial operations in February and Sandia in March. Both are scheduled to be fully operational in May 2007.

Sandia researcher Steve Thornberg has developed a sampling mechanism for analyzing atmospheres inside tiny devices such as microsystems. Sandia is known for its innovative work in MEMS and microsystems.
Click here to enlarge image

Sandia and Los Alamos are looking at integration across disciplines, types of materials, functions and scales, Phillips said. “In order to have the greatest impact, you need to translate from the nano to the macro; you’ll need to integrate. Microsystems have done that well. That’s Sandia’s strength.”

The two labs can tap into a number of existing tools and facilities such as Los Alamos’ Neutron Science Center and National High Magnetic Field Laboratory and Sandia’s microelectronics fabrication facility. But they also are working on creating a novel technology called Discovery Platforms, MEMS-based laboratories that can perform nanoscience experiments. The platforms, which will be available to users, will measure electronic, mechanical, fluidic, optical, thermal and other properties in nanomaterials and nanostructures.

“This will be a huge difference between us and the other labs,” Phillips said. “It’s microsystems to do nanoscience.” Microsystems will allow researchers to run experiments in parallel, eliminating the random, one-time-only results that have plagued nanotechnology, Phillips said. “They will be highly reproducible.”

The collaboration differs from other centers in another way as well, Phillips said. As part of the DOE’s nuclear program, the two labs secure the nation’s nuclear stockpile and develop technologies for homeland defense and national security. Phillips said that no classified work will be conducted at the center, and facilities have been situated to allow access from foreign as well as U.S. researchers. But she said the labs’ researchers are sensitized by their mission, and will be attuned to dual-use applications that may pop up as they work on integrated nanotechnologies.