Manchester's graphene research centre designed to be transparent

Scientists in Britain working on miracle material grapheme made sure their new research centre would be the antithesis of the darkened lab

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2014, 4:22am

The idea that scientists at the cutting edge of potentially lucrative research must work in isolated labs, away from prying eyes, is so passé. The new trend is for them - and what they're up to in their white lab gowns - to be visible, and the National Graphene Institute (NGI) in Manchester, England, is an excellent example.

Two researchers at the University of Manchester isolated graphene in 2004. Six years later, Professors Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, followed by knighthoods for their pioneering work.

The first thing to understand about this so-called wonder material is that it is seriously small. Made from a single layer of carbon atoms, it is said to be the thinnest material ever measured.

But despite its small size, it is super-strong - said to be 200 times as strong as steel and more conductive than copper - all features that could make it very useful in a number of industries, particularly information technology and medicine.

There's a lot of hope pinned on this miracle material, and the race to find commercial uses for it will be based at Manchester University, where it was first isolated. The NGI will open at the beginning of next year, a place for academia and industry experts to work alongside each other to find new applications for graphene.

Architecture firm Jestico + Whiles won the contract for the NGI and was tasked with designing a building suitable for scientists and businesspeople to work in together. The first step of the design process involved weeks of intense briefing sessions with the researchers who will work in the building as well as the university's building managers, maintenance team and security staff.

"One of the fundamental design options we discussed at the beginning of the project was whether the building should have a closed off, private character or an open, transparent character," said Tony Ling, director at Jestico + Whiles.

The scientists were firmly in favour of more openness. What this means is that the five-storey building's key work space - the large "clean room" in the basement - is visible from the street. The clean room is three metres high, which means that the street is level with its ceiling. The ceiling was cleverly angled all the way around the outside of the building so that from the pavement you can see into the clean room.

What's more, a wraparound viewing corridor surrounds the clean room so that visitors can see into the workspace without having to gown up. You might have thought that this would pose privacy issues, but apparently not.

"In terms of intellectual property, actually all you can see are people in gowns walking around or sitting in front of machines. In terms of the secrets, if there is such a thing, what they are working on is not perceptible just by looking in so there isn't any problem," Ling said. He added that blinds were installed on the inner glazed walls of the clean rooms to give the option of privacy.

What all this means for the scientists is that not only do they have an improved work environment - with the benefit of daylight and the ability to see outside - but excitement can build up on campus about the research.

It's the third such building that Ling and his team have worked on, following the Mountbatten Building at the University of Southampton and the Australian Institute of Nanoscience at the University of Sydney, which is still under construction.

"These days people prefer a kind of transparent approach. They are more happy to display their work, at least of the kind of research they are doing. This is partly so that when scholars or other visitors come they can see what is going," Ling said.

The design of the NGI was largely influenced by the technical requirements of the spaces, the most important being the clean rooms.

The large one in the basement is for the use of university scientists and a smaller one will be for partners in industry, such as Samsung or Siemon.

Since the graphene research will be done at the nano level, it's critical that the building is as stable as possible, which makes the basement the prime location for a clean room, as it is closest to the bedrock and least likely to experience vibration.

Even the room's floor slab is separated from the elevator so that the lift's motor doesn't cause the floor to vibrate.

The other key factor for the clean room is keeping the space clean and dust-free - this is done using air filters - and at a controlled temperature and humidity. All of this adds up to make it a high-energy building.

"These days the direction of researchers changes very quickly, so one of the key requirements was that the building was very flexible so that it meets today's requirements but it also has the potential to be able be changed and adapted in the future," Ling said.

To this end, some of the labs are designed with modular dimensions so that the spaces are flexible should more people need to be accommodated. And all the services, from the air handling to the electricity supply, are designed to be flexible, too. Thus the NGI can quickly be reworked to support new experiments or equipment.

But it's not all dry. Scientists need to have fun and relax, especially as there will be times when they need to work around the clock for extended periods.

One of two main relaxation areas is a top-lit double-height breakout space in the centre of the building that connects the two main laboratory floors by a spiral staircase. This is overlooked on three sides by labs and offices and has the largest single window in the building. And on the top floor there is a large, multi-purpose seminar and social space with a roof terrace garden.

"These people work very intensely - sometimes they are there for 24/7 for days on end - so it's a very intense space. So we feel it's necessary within that very heavy environment to also have places where they can relax, meet … or take a break," Ling said.

It was a conversation with Novoselov that led to one of the unique aspects of the building. He explained to Ling that he wanted as much space as possible within the building to be suitable for discussing ideas with his colleagues.

"There are plenty of corridors, so we thought, why not make them workable spaces? They don't just have to be passive circulation space," Ling said.

Health and safety regulations banning the use of chalk meant they couldn't use traditional blackboards, so instead the designers clad the walls in a type of blackboard material that the scientists will be able to write on with a special pen.

"Anywhere in the building that Kostya wants to stop and discuss something with colleagues, he can write things on the wall. This way the building will [be] changing constantly," Ling said.

And it could just be that one of those corridor scribbles leads to the big breakthrough application that many are pinning their hopes on for graphene.