Grant will fund high-precision measurement lab in reconstructed Campbell Hall

| 03 December 2008

An $11 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will help the campus build a state-of-the-art precision-measurement laboratory in the planned new home for the astronomy department and part of the physics department.

The award, announced Nov. 24, was one of three NIST grants totaling $24 million to build research facilities at universities that will advance technologies and research in line with the mission of the Department of Commerce, which oversees NIST.

The new Berkeley facility, to be called the Center for Integrated Precision and Quantum Measurement (CIPQM), will occupy the basement level of a building to be erected on the site of Campbell Hall, which now houses the astronomy department and offices of the College of Letters and Science. The new Campbell Hall building will provide space for the physics department to expand from neighboring LeConte and Birge halls.

"We are hoping for a project start date in 2010. Construction of the new building is one of the campus's high priorities," says Mark Richards, dean of the mathematical and physical sciences in the College of Letters and Science.

The physics department has been in need of new low-noise, low-vibration laboratory space for years. In Birge Hall, physicists have been known to conduct experiments in the middle of the night when ground vibrations from passing trucks are minimal, and have even postponed experiments until weekends or holidays to be able to turn off ventilation equipment and elevators to reduce vibrations.

"It is critical that 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," says Michael Crommie, professor of physics and leader of the CIPQM. "If you have too much noise, it contaminates the measurements and obscures the science we're trying to study."

Crommie himself uses scanning tunneling microscopy to study the atomic-level physics of materials. "I use a sharp metal needle to probe individual atoms and molecules, and I need to keep that needle stable," he says. "If it moves by a small fraction of the diameter of a single atom, then that completely screws up my measurement. If the room is shaking and vibrating, then the measurement needle vibrates, too."

Other researchers use laser tables with many precisely aligned mirrors to conduct measurements where it is critical to keep alignments to within a fraction of the wavelength of light. If these mirrors vibrate, such measurements are impossible.

The need to either retrofit or rebuild Campbell Hall because of its poor seismic rating offered an opportunity to construct a basement laboratory in which to conduct what Crommie calls "fabulous new high-quality, high-precision experiments that are very much in tune with the mission of NIST."

As summarized in Berkeley's proposal to NIST, research to be conducted in the CIPQM will include: the application of atomically resolved microscopy to observe dynamical processes at the nanoscale; quantum nanomechanics, an emerging discipline focused on the measurement and control of mechanical properties of nanostructures; interferometry with ultracold atoms, with 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 in physics, earth exploration, and medical devices that sense faint magnetic fields; and advanced optical-metrology techniques at the nanoscale.

The 10,000-square-foot space will comprise 10 to 15 high-quality modular laboratories that could house researchers from a range of disciplines, including physics, electrical engineering, chemistry, and molecular and cell biology.