UCL Mathematical & Physical Sciences


Inside the clean room

1 July 2013

Inside the cleanroom at LCN. Credit: O. Usher (UCL MAPS)


The London Centre for Nanotechnology is a joint research institute of UCL and Imperial College London. In its main base, on the UCL campus, LCN carries out research into materials at the smallest of scales. Combining areas as varied as electronics design, chemistry and life sciences, LCN's hi-tech labs are a hive of cross-disciplinary study - and are the only facilities of their type in a city centre anywhere in the world.

At the heart of LCN  is the cleanroom, a lab which is kept completely dust free. This lets scientists and engineers build and measure very small devices in an environment free of contamination. Everyone who enters the room must wear protective clothing to avoid bringing dust into the room, and all equipment they bring in has to be cleaned beforehand.

One section of the cleanroom, pictured above, is the optical photolithography lab. In this area, scientists build devices such as computer chips, by using precisely controlled ultraviolet light to mark the surface of coated semiconductor wafers. To avoid ambient light interfering with the process, the lab is lit with orange light, which the wafers are not sensitive to as it is far away from ultraviolet in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Outside the cleanroom...

The LCN's facility on the UCL campus is an attractive, modern building designed and built a decade ago by architecture firm Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. It has a number of unusual features, including vibration damping (to stop the rumbling and banging of a central London location harming the experiments), and large windows that give the public a glimpse of the science that goes on indoors in some of the labs. Standing outside the building on Gordon Street gives an excellent bird's eye view of the basement lab that houses the giant Scanning Tunelling Microscopes, for instance.

Unlike the STM lab, the cleanroom sadly isn't visible from the street. However it does have windows that let other users of the building see into the strange world inside, and which cast out eerie orange light into the building's main staircase.

The window might make the cleanroom look like it is easy to access, as it is just a few centimetres away. In truth it is anything but: the window is sealed shut... and the only access is through an airlock and decontamination room.

Photo credit: O. Usher (UCL MAPS)


High resolution images

Inside the cleanroom

Outside the cleanroom

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