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Monday, March 27, 2006

Berkeley Lab Dedicates the Molecular Foundry

By Lynn Yarris

Traditionally, a foundry has been a place where molded objects are made.  The term comes from “founding,” the act of pouring a liquid material into a mold and allowing it to solidify.  Since the introduction of industrial foundries in the 17th century, the shape and size of the objects that can be made at a foundry has been limited only by the ability to liquefy a material and cast it in a mold. At a foundry where objects can be fashioned atom-by-atom or molecule-by-molecule, the potential shapes and sizes are virtually limitless.  This is the promise of the Molecular Foundry dedicated on Friday at Berkeley Lab).  

The Molecular Foundry is the first of five proposed U.S. Department of Energy Nanoscale Science Research Centers and the only one on the West Coast.  It is housed inside an $85 million, six-story, 94,500 square-foot building that
was designed by the SmithGroup of San Francisco, and constructed by Rudolph and Sletten General Contractors, out of Foster City.  Ground for this facility was broken only two years ago.  As a DOE national research facility, the resources at the Molecular Foundry will be made available to qualified scientists throughout the country.  Already, more than 50 Molecular Foundry scientific projects have been approved.

The Molecular Foundry is under the direction of  Carolyn Bertozzi, a faculty scientist with Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences and Physical Biosciences Divisions, and the T.Z. and Irmgard Chu Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Technology at the nanometer scale is not simply today’s microtechnology only smaller. At the nanoscale, which is 1,000 times smaller than the microscale, matter exhibits very special properties because of quantum size effects, altered thermodynamics, and modified chemical reactivity. Instead of processing electrons and photons, as is done with microtechnology, nanotechnology researchers must learn to process matter itself.  Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry will have the facilities and the scientific staff to meet this challenge.

Research at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry will encompass “hard” (inorganic) materials, including nanocrystals, nanotubes, and lithographically patterned structures, and “soft” (organic and biologic) materials, such as polymers, DNA, proteins, and components of living cells.  Nanometer lengths-of-scale are where investigations into hard and soft materials meet and to study this common ground, researchers at The Molecular Foundry will invoke the primary fabrication strategies of both -- the “top-down” approach practiced by solid-state physicists and physical chemists in which existing structures and objects, such as semiconductors, are made smaller; and the “bottom-up” approach practiced by chemists and molecular biologists in which atoms and molecules are connected together to make larger structures and objects.  The Molecular Foundry will host its own research program and collaborative programs with visiting researchers, and will also provide training for graduate and post-doctoral students. 

In addition to its research programs and training component, The Molecular Foundry will also serve its collaborators as a “portal” into three other national user facilities at Berkeley Lab, each of which offers cutting-edge technical capabilities crucial to effective nano-scale research.  These three facilities are: the Advanced Light Source, a synchrotron storage ring that generates some of the brightest and most intense x-rays available for scientific research; the National Center for Electron Microscopy (NCEM), where researchers can “see” atoms in a crystal and have achieved sub-angstrom resolutions of structural details; and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), which is one of the most powerful computing resources for non-classified research in the world.

Among the possible developments foreseen for the Molecular Foundry are the fabrication of electronic devices out of carbon nanotubes; the detection and treatment of diseases at the cellular level; the reduction of waste and pollution in manufacturing processes; improved sensors for real-time monitoring of chemical and biological activity; high-performance electricity transmission lines and next-generation solar cells.


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