Research News

ARRA grant allows update of nanoscience institute’s air-handling equipment

If there is one thing that nanoscientists need above all else to study the behavior of materials and create devices at the scale of individual atoms, it is an ultra-clean environment. The fresh air that we breathe contains something like one million microscopic particles in a cubic foot, more than enough to wreak havoc with nanoscientists’ delicate experiments. So they must conduct most of their projects in special “clean rooms” with elaborate air-handling systems that keep contaminants below 10,000 particles per cubic foot.

That is one of the main reasons why the 100 scientists and 350-plus students who use the facilities at Vanderbilt’s Institute of Nanoscale Science and Engineering are celebrating a $569,000 grant that the institute has received from the National Science Foundation. The purpose of this American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant is to renovate the air handling equipment in the VINSE clean room and upgrade its toxic gas monitoring system.

“These types of infrastructure improvements are not very exciting by themselves, but they make it possible for VINSE scientists to continue to do fascinating research on subjects like graphene, nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems, carbon nanotubes, biosensors and quantum dots,” said Tony Hmelo, associate director of operations and outreach at VINSE, who spearheaded the effort to obtain the grant.

Since 2001, when VINSE was established with a $15.9 million university investment, it has helped some 100 Vanderbilt scientists and 50 affiliates from other universities in the Middle Tennessee area conduct cutting-edge nanoscience research.

“VINSE has been a great success story,” Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Richard McCarty told a group of VINSE researchers at a recent reception.

“From its inception through the end of fiscal year 2009, VINSE investigators have brought in a total of $61.7 million in external funding,” said VINSE director and Professor of Chemistry Sandy Rosenthal.

The centerpiece of the institute is its 1,600-square-foot clean room that keeps the number of dust particles in the air within its walls below the 10,000-per-cubic-foot level. It has been in continuous operation since 2003, but its 83 ceiling fans and HEPA filters are wearing out. Because the units are no longer in production, they must be completely replaced.

In addition, nanoscience experimenters frequently use small quantities of a number of hazardous gases. So the capability to detect their presence in very low concentrations is a critical safety requirement. The institute’s existing toxic gas monitoring system – installed in 2003 – has reached its end of life and has been superseded by new and improved technology. So the new grant will allow VINSE to upgrade its capability to the currently supported standard.

In order to make these upgrades as cost-effective as possible, VINSE scientists collaborated closely with architect Hans Mooy in Campus Planning and Bob Wheaton, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety.

The work will be performed by local contractors and will employ 20 to 25 workers for about six months.