New nanotechnology cleanrooms at EPFL
Renovated from top to bottom, EPFL’s microengineering building is now prepared to house new, highly promising experiments in microengineering and bioengineering. A complex of exceptional cleanrooms - unique in Switzerland - is now available for scientists, students and research partners.
EPFL has proven once again that it will put all its cards on the table to position itself among the world’s top science and technology institutes. At a time when the rise of micro- and nano-technology is strongly influencing the traditional engineering disciplines, the Lausanne-based School has invested 14.4 million Swiss francs to renovate and transform its microengineering building. Inaugurated on Tuesday, the building can now meet the needs of new professors that have been recently recruited to the Engineering School (STI), as well as all scientists who are using the latest nanofabrication techniques. It houses a new complex of cleanrooms, new faculty offices and twelve new laboratories in which research runs the gamut – from measuring the mechanical properties of nanotubes or the dynamics of fluids, to studying optical neuron networks.
A tailor-made building
In addition to the microengineering building on the Lausanne campus, EPFL has other sites dedicated to nanotechnology: the Interdisciplinary Center of Electron Microscopy (CIME), and the Comlab in Neuchâtel, which is part of the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM). For technical and historical reasons, however, the microengineering building in Lausanne was the one chosen to harbor these upgrades and renovations. The BM building has always housed several laboratories working in the micro- and nano-systems fields, with biomedical applications. But even more importantly, it is home to the Center for MicroNanoTechnology (CMI), a complex of world-class cleanrooms that has been continuously developed and adapted to the needs of scientists over the years.
Recently, demand for the existing cleanroom frequently exceeded availability, due to a growing number of users. Much of the renovation work was thus spent developing an extension to the CMI: the CMI+, a new complex of five low-level cleanrooms (three modules 10 times less “clean” and two modules 100 times less “clean” than the top level cleanroom). The two units, CMI and CMI+, are closely associated, and are even physically connected by an elevator.
“Low level cleanrooms allow us to take the initial steps needed for getting a given technology up and running,before complete development in the top level cleanroom,” explains Philippe Flückiger, CMI’s Director of Operations. “Some techniques don’t need the highest level of filtration,” he continues. “The new rooms also meet the needs of Life Sciences and Basic Sciences researchers who want to carry out rapid prototyping.” The presence of the new rooms and equipment should reduce the pressure on the existing cleanroom complex situated on the floor below.
The new low-level cleanrooms have many advantages. Easier to access than the existing CMI cleanroom (there is less training time required), they also cost users nearly four times less, and will progressively be open 24/7. Scientists, students and research partners will thus have more freedom, but also less on-site assistance. And although the top-level cleanroom is dedicated to processes associated with microengineering, micromechanical systems (MEMS) and nanofabrication, the CMI+ complex opens up the possibility of exploring other, non-traditional processes. “In the top-level cleanroom fume hoods, for example, we use standard microengineering products like fluorhydric acid and sulfuric acid,” explains Flückiger. “The CMI+ will let us work with smaller quantities and a wider variety of products.”
This is good news for CMI users -- PhD students, professors (teaching lab classes) and industrial collaborators. And what’s more, says Flückiger, “this set of infrastructure is unique in Switzerland.”