Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

The Molecular Foundry sounds like a laboratory out of a science fiction story, but it's as real as the rubber gloves sticking out of this metal-organic chemical vapor deposition tool. Last weekend, I went on a tour of this UC Berkeley facility, where scientists and entrepreneurs work at nanoscale, literally rebuilding our world one atom at a time. People used to call this stuff nanotech, but I think the metalworking metaphor is more apt. Here is where we forge new molecules.

Early Sunday afternoon, I met up with a group led by San Francisco Nerd Nite organizer Kishore Hari to tour the lab. The Molecular Foundry is a five-story facility built into the hills over the Berkeley campus. There is a breathtaking view of the Bay Bridge from its windows, but nobody is here to see macro structures. This lab is entirely devoted to the world of the "hella small," as Hari put it.

Researchers here have access to incredible machines that help them do things like construct new materials, such as stronger and more conductive metals; they can also craft novel drug delivery systems like tiny nano-capsules that deliver drugs directly to a tumor in your body. Machines in the facility range from powerful microscopes that can produce images of molecular bonds, to ones that can vaporize metals in order to change their physical properties. This scale of research leads to things like "biological electricity," where cells and electrical components are joined together to produce energy. The laws of physics change when you get down to the molecular level, and that's why this area of research is so exciting — and weird.

Our guide at the Foundry was electron-obsessed staff scientist Adam Schwartzberg, who confessed that the main characteristic of laser labs is that "they are messy." By which I think he meant awesome.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

Here's one of the laser setups where Schwartzberg does research. It's part of a scanning near-field optical microscope, which can measure objects that are smaller than a wavelength of light. Often the scientists have to work in total darkness, because random photons from the overhead lights can disturb their experiments. "You get these really ugly spectral lines from fluorescents," Schwartzberg said, making a face as if he were trying to forget the taste of a really awful wavelength. Below, a part of Schwartzberg's lab.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

You can also create new arrangements of molecules using the vapor deposition tool you see at the top of this post. Below is another part of the same machine.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

Carbon nanotubes are grown in machines like these. Below, you can see the new hotness, a machine for making graphene sheets. Some people are calling graphene "black magic" because it has a number of valuable properties for next-generation electronics, including being infinitely stretchy, self-cooling, and conductive. Yes, the cheesy "black magic" epithet is emblazoned on this piece of equipment.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

Below is one of the clean rooms where researchers manufacture new materials in dust-free environments. It's full of machines for nano-fabrication, like deposition and etching tools (at the molecular level, of course), as well as tools for measuring the composition of a molecular film using lasers. Many researchers, including Schwartzberg, research these molecular films, or layers of matter that are a single molecule thick. Molecular films are used to make hard drives, among other things, and will have many other uses in the future.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

The barrel-shaped machine you see above is an evaporator that allows researchers to create ultra-thin metal films. This room is a class 1000 clean room, which means there are only 1000 particles per cubic meter of air. Everyone in here wears a full body "bunny suit," and the air is cleansed with HEPA filters. The lights are amber to prevent those bad-tasting light wavelengths from interfering with nanofabrication.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

Above is a class 100 clean room. It's outfitted with a scanning electron microscope for looking at what you've made, and a special sink that neutralizes the pH of whatever you throw into it, no matter how acidic or alkaline. Below, a door to one of the Molecular Foundry labs.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

Oh, you biologists with your CFU jokes.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

Below, a seriously sexy scanning electron microscope. One of the things that's fascinating about research into the world of the ultra-tiny is the way it changes the way you perceive every object around you. Instead of a table being solid, it's a bunch of molecules whose electrons are, as Schwartzberg put it, "sloshing around." Even an atom no longer feels like a solid thing. "When you're looking at atoms, you're just measuring densities of electrons," Schwartzberg said. Everything is fluid; everything is moving in particles and waves.

Tomorrow's Material World is Being Built at the Molecular FoundryS

Plus, this is a facility devoted to changing the very fabric of the materials we think of as real. Here, researchers rip molecules apart with lasers, stick them to each other, and build entirely new inorganic materials. Or they force molecules to line up and connect to each other in ways that you'd never find in the wild.

In biology, scientists distinguish between genetically-engineered organisms like lab mice, and "wild-type" ones like the mice who break into your pantry to steal rice. At the Molecular Foundry, I got a glimpse of the difference between engineered matter and wild-type matter. We've been engineering our environment on the macroscale for thousands of years — and even, often unknowingly, on the micro-scale with metalworking. Now we're getting much smaller. And that will change everything.

Want to know more about the Molecular Foundry? Visit their website.

Also, I should confess that I have been obsessed with the Molecular Foundry for a long time — I even wrote a science fiction story that is set partly at the Foundry.