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New facility to shelter delicate instruments


lans are being finalized for construction of a new Ames Laboratory research facility that will house current and next-generation sensitive instruments, such as electron and scanning probe microscopes. These instruments allow for detailed description of materials at the atomic level to aid in the discovery and design of novel materials. The nearly $10 million project is being funded through the DOE’s Office of Science.

“This state-of-the-art facility will greatly enhance our capability to study and characterize materials at the atomic scale and in turn improve how we are able to support the DOE’s mission,” says Interim Ames Laboratory Director Tom Lograsso. “The quality and impact of Ames Laboratory scientific research has increased our visibility within the DOE and around the world. We see support for this facility as recognition of that hard work.”

Planning for the Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF) has been in the works for about three years and included an in-depth site survey of five possible locations. The SIF will be built at the Applied Science Complex northwest of the main Iowa State University campus because this site offers “the lowest site vibration levels ever measured” by the consulting firm reviewing the sites. According to Ames Laboratory facilities engineer Steve Carter, the plans should be finalized this fall, which will allow the project to be bid in early winter with construction tentatively slated to begin in April or May 2014. Construction is expected to take 12-15 months to complete.


Access corridors along the outside of the building will help minimize the impact of foot traffic on the sensitive instruments that will be housed in isolated instrument bays. The building will have its own wet and dry labs for sample preparation. It will be located in relatively close proximity to the existing Applied Science 2 building (center).

The 13,300 square-foot facility will be a straight-forward, rectangular-shaped building, but its rather plain exterior design belies the complexity of creating interior space isolated from vibration or electrical interference. It will have six bays to house sensitive instruments, such as electron microscopes used to reveal atoms and atomic structures. Working at such a small scale, even the slightest disturbance from vibration or electro-magnetic interference will blur the image.

“Isolation is key and we’ve tried to design it to accommodate the next generation of instruments,” Carter says. “We’re talking about instruments so sensitive that the operator will work from a separate control room because the beating of their heart or breathing will cause excess vibration. It’s a very unique and complex building.”

For example, the concrete floors will be approximately two feet thick with vibration dampening layers built in. Similarly, the walls and ceilings will be thick concrete and the instrument bays will be lined with quarter-inch-thick aluminum plate to help create an electro-magnetic barrier. Reinforcing bars in the concrete must be fiberglass, not steel. Likewise, the electrical conduit and even the fasteners used must be non-magnetic (non-ferrous). And the heating and ventilation system must keep the temperature and humidity constant without creating vibration or interference.

“There’s been good input from a lot of players, including the Lab’s microscopy group and ISU Facilities Planning and Management staff,” Carter says. “And (facilities manager) Mark Grootveld deserves a lot of credit for guiding the overall project.”

The Sensitive Instrument Facility is the first new research facility to be built by the Ames Laboratory in more than 50 years. The last new construction was the Lab’s Technical and Administrative Services Facility, which was completed in 1993.











Matt Kramer

The Sensitive Instrument Facility grew from Ames Laboratory’s historic role in characterizing materials and the need for ever-more sophisticated and sensitive equipment required to carry out that investigative work.

“We planned this facility in particular to take advantage of the next generation of electron microscopes,” says Matt Kramer, interim Materials Science and Engineering division director and leader of the Lab’s microscopy group. “The equipment has gotten so much better there’s been an increase in resolution of roughly a magnitude factor of 4 … we’ve gone from about 2 angstroms down to 0.6 angstroms, or less than the diameter of an atom in the past decade.”

While the existing Tecnai transmission electron microscope, now located in Willhelm Hall, will be moving to the new facility, the Lab is pulling together a list of new equipment to enhance and expand the Lab’s characterization capabilities. The list includes a field emission scanning electron microscope ($555,000); a focused ion beam microscope ($1.2 million) and an aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscope ($4.2 million).

“The field emission SEM would replace two existing microscopes,” Kramer says, “which are becoming obsolete. The focused ion beam (FIB) microscope will bring a whole new capability sorely needed at the lab. While it can be used as a microscope in its own right, the FIB provides a new tool for sample preparation.”

Acquiring the aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscope will be a more daunting task.

“Due to its cost, the scanning transmission microscope may take a few years to acquire because DOE requires that capital equipment expenditures over $2 million must be a line item in the federal budget, and as you might imagine, that process is very involved.”

For now, Ames Lab researchers have been using new-generation equipment at other DOE user facilities, but the situation is less than ideal. Besides having to travel and schedule limited availability on the equipment, preparation of the samples is also problematic. Some materials being studied degrade rapidly so they need to be prepared on site.

That will be one other advantage of the new facility. It features both dry and wet labs for material preparation. The dry lab will handle the cutting, grinding and polishing of metallographic materials. The wet lab will allow preparation of bio-inspired materials, such as those being studied by Ames Lab scientist Tanya Prozorov.

The location of the facility near the Applied Science Complex about two miles northwest of the ISU campus will present a minor challenge.

“We’ll need to get our user base used to traveling,” Kramer says, “because unfortunately, none of the sites in closer proximity to our existing buildings were suitable. However, the sophistication of the equipment will allow some activity to be viewed remotely on line, saving physical travel.”

While computerized controls will allow many users to get up to speed quickly, it will require extensive training to get the most out of the equipment. That is particularly true for some types of sample preparation.

“There will be a fairly steep learning curve on some aspects,” Kramer says, “but it’s what we’ll need to do in order to get the most out of the equipment. But we’re excited about the possibilities and it will be worth the investment.”


~ by Kerry Gibson

Resolution of current equipment
Resolution of proposed equipment