Window on State Government - Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
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This column is meant to be a conversation about the federal stimulus package as the Comptroller's office tracks how the money is spent in Texas.

June 29, 2011

Doors open to the future for Rice physicists


In physics, a science marked by almost immeasurable precision, the slightest errant vibration can doom ultra sensitive atomic-level experiments, forcing scientists to start over.

Rice University is eliminating the wiggle room.

Funded by an $11.1 million stimulus grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Houston school’s new Brockman Hall for Physics is painstakingly designed to provide a remarkably stable, technologically peerless laboratory.

“There is nothing more fundamental to our ability to grow as a country than our ability to stay at the cutting edge of research,” NIST Director Patrick Gallagher said at the building’s dedication in March.

Finding the Best Design

Rice physics professor Barry Dunning was part of the design team, which visited other top physics labs across the nation with architects from Kieran Timberlake of Philadelphia.

“We saw what we should do and what we should not do,” Dunning says. “Every best practice we saw we incorporated.”

The main focus in the four-story, 110,000-square foot home to the Rice physics department was stability.

“If you shake a laser, its frequency changes,” Dunning says. “It can lose (target) lock. It used to be in the old lab that you had to start when everyone had gone home at night, weren’t walking around and closing doors, and run your experiment through the night.

“Now that won’t be necessary. This building is built to very strict standards. You can drop and kick on the floor and – nothing. The vibrations don’t propagate.”

Some of the building’s other features include:

  • Fiberglass-reinforced concrete: Rather than normal steel rebar, so as to avoid any magnetic interference. The building is also built on several different slabs, which diffuse vibrations. Each slab is two-feet thick, about four times the thickness of a normal construction slab.
  • Strategic Placement: Power generation is located in a separate room outside the laboratory, to avoid vibration and humidity.
  • Power Transformers: Located in a room surrounded by welded stainless steel to cut down on electro-magnetic interference.
  • Submarine-Style Doors/Hatches: On the lower level to prevent potentially disastrous flooding.
  • A Helium Recovery System: To be added by 2012 to conserve an increasingly scarce, non-renewable resource.
  • Common Areas: Intended to allow scientists working on different projects to mingle, which could lead to a cross-pollination of ideas.

On the Cutting Edge

The building will house various research initiatives, including ultra-cold physics and nano-biology. One project examines how to attach a particle to a cancer cell. “If you can do that, you can shine infrared light on it and cook the cancer,” Dunning says. “So this is very exciting work.”

Dunning is researching the feasibility of atoms as a replacement for silicon chips in computer memory storage.

“If we can make quantum computing work, it can replace silicon computers,” Dunning says. “That’s the next paradigm for computing. Ultimately if you used all the silicon in the universe to make a computer, you could make a computer with the same power with about 300 atoms. It’s potentially an enormous advantage.”

Brockman Hall is also planned to be as “green” as possible, a difficult goal for a science that depends on high-power lasers and large cooling systems. The building’s energy recovery system, which uses exiting hot air to turn a rotor that in turn cools incoming air, is projected to cut energy costs by 30 percent.

Brockman Hall has a Silver certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, an internationally recognized green standard for buildings. The building’s design was also one of 12 recognized by the Texas Society of Architects’ annual design competition.

A Magnet for Research and Funding

All those aspects may also help lure top physicists and all-important funding to Rice, Dunning says.

“The fact is the building raises our visibility more nationally and internationally,” he says. “We will be able to propose state-of-the-art research. One of the things the agencies look for (in deciding funding) is, ‘Do you have the facilities?’ And the answer is ‘Yes, we have the facilities to do any piece of work we want to do.’”

And what type of work that might be is almost unlimited.

“This is just going to revolutionize physics,” Dunning says. “We can do work we couldn’t have even thought about before.

“Who knows what’s going to be new? One of the advantages of moving into the building is that the physics department is no longer scattered in five different buildings across campus. Collaborations are much more enhanced. A researcher who was in a different building is now in the next lab, and we’re looking to do research with optical fibers that none of us could have done before.”

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