BY NICOLE CASAL MOORE
With a “breaker space,” ultra-low vibration chambers and tissue culture rooms, a new world-class research complex at Michigan Engineering will let researchers study the forces at work at the smallest scales to advance nanotechnologies in energy, manufacturing, healthcare and biotechnology.
The $46 million Center of Excellence in Nano Mechanical Science and Engineering is a three-story, 62,880-square-foot addition to the G.G. Brown Laboratories on North Campus. It opened on Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.
“This addition enhances the impactful research, multidisciplinary collaboration, and cutting-edge teaching that are hallmarks of our Department of Mechanical Engineering. It is a great example of how we can work with our strong federal, state, community and industry partners to advance education that will produce new products and spur growth in our economy,” U-M President Mark Schlissel said.
The things mechanical engineers work on are changing, said Noel Perkins, associate chair for facilities and planning of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
“For a long time, they were on the order of the size of our hands,” Perkins said, “but it’s no longer limited to that. Emerging technologies demand research at the nano- and microscales, and to do that, you need new infrastructure.”
In what Professor Ellen Arruda calls the “breaker space,” researchers will watch the degradation of materials that go into things like cars, airplanes and medical devices.
“Advancing our understanding of how things break is critical to preventing catastrophic failure in transportation, medical and commodity devices,” said Arruda, professor of mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering and macromolecular science and engineering. She’s one of several who will use the Materials and Mechanics Lab.
One floor down is the Microbioengineering Lab, with essential amenities such as tissue culture rooms. Normally reserved for biology labs, engineering researchers will now be able to grow the living cells they need to study how proteins might go haywire and lead to cancers, for example, or to test real-time blood infection sensors.
Katsuo Kurabayashi, professor of mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering, will culture immune cell lines. He’s making biochip sensors for quickly finding proteins in blood that reveal conditions like sepsis, infection and immune deficiencies.
“This lab uniquely provides researchers with a means to develop new technologies and study fundamental biomechanics phenomena by combining micro and nano engineering with biology,” Kurabayashi said.
On the ground floor in the Nanoengineering Lab are the ultra-low vibration chambers. They’re tightly controlled not only to limit shaking, but also noise, temperature and humidity variations, as well as radio frequency and magnetic interference.
Inside what Perkins describes as a building-within-a-building, the chambers are supported by their own 8-foot-thick concrete slab foundation called a seismic mass. It’s separate from the main building’s foundation and it’s designed to withstand vibration from outside, such as traffic, and inside, such as heating and cooling systems. The chambers have a floating floor that bridges the gap in the main building’s foundation. Tables sit atop concrete pillars that extend through openings in the suspended floor and anchor to the seismic mass. That way, even researchers’ footsteps won’t disturb experiments.
These conditions will enable researchers to understand energy transport at the molecular scale. For example, they’ll study how heat moves across atoms in nanoscale devices. Another team will study how a single molecule of DNA responds to the slightest of forces, which could give insights into genetic diseases.
“With the emergence of nanotechnology and nanoengineering of the last two decades, a relatively small number of institutions and agencies have been able to construct facilities for ultra-sensitive measurements, and I know of none that are focused on the mission of a mechanical engineering department,” said Edgar Meyhofer, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering. Meyhofer is leading the DNA work and will collaborate on the atomic heat transfer research as well.
Other researchers will utilize the Nanostructures Lab, where they’ll build artificial platelet cells for medical purposes and artificial neurons for advanced computers, for example. And in the Microdynamics Lab, they’ll study the tiniest forces. They’ll develop computational models that describe the mechanics of DNA and protein assemblies and the behavior of viruses, among other projects.
“Such a facility is indeed unique for mechanical engineering world-wide,” said Kon-Well Wang, the Tim Manganello/BorgWarner Department Chair and Stephen P. Timoshenko Collegiate Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “Our department is a top program that continues to lead, define and shape the future of mechanical engineering. This unique research complex will enhance our ability to do so by enabling transformative research that will impact society in areas such as energy, transportation, manufacturing, health care and biotechnology.”
The addition was made possible in part by a $9.5 million grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The project is supported by $15 million from U-M, $6.5 million from the College of Engineering, and $15 million in private commitments.
“This facility will enable groundbreaking experiments by our faculty and students, resulting in landmark advances at the interface of mechanical engineering and nanoscience. We look forward to watching this progress unfold,” said David Munson, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering