“MIT will construct, at the heart of the campus, a new center for nanoscience and nanotechnology. An advanced facility open to the entire community of faculty, researchers, and students. A convening space to spark collaboration and cross-pollination. A hive for tinkering with atoms, one by one—and for constructing, from these fantastically small building blocks, a future of infinite possibility.”

That was the promise that hovered over the former site of Building 12 when the construction of MIT.nano began in 2015—the vision that motivated the generosity of numerous MIT supporters who shared it. This summer, with construction substantially completed, the team behind the long-awaited facility will begin to move in its first tools. In the fall, MIT will celebrate the building’s opening and students will attend class in the chemistry undergraduate teaching labs on its top floor. Philanthropic support will continue to be essential in enabling more than 2,000 researchers per year to use the facility to advance a range of fields, including health and life sciences, energy, computing, information technology, manufacturing, and quantum science.

As MIT.nano springs to life, Spectrum spoke with the facility’s inaugural director, Vladimir Bulović, Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology.

How will this new building advance the nano education, research, and innovation already thriving at MIT?

VB: Nano is not a specific technology but rather a revolutionary way of understanding and working with matter. Most of MIT’s recently tenured science and engineering faculty advance their work through the understanding of nanoscale science and nanotechnology. They are building the future, and MIT.nano will assist them in any way needed. Researchers and innovators, as well as our partners, will share access to a broad and versatile tool set that can do more— imaging, synthesis, fabrication, prototyping— entirely within the facility’s protective envelope.

This is also the beginning of a new era of nano education at MIT, with integrated hands-on learning spaces and advanced teaching tools. MIT.nano will support the work of both existing and emerging centers of nano research at MIT, such as the recently launched SENSE.nano that develops nano-enabled sensors and sensing systems. Such “centers of excellence” coalesce the intellectual pursuits of a set of faculty, providing a unifying voice that instructs MIT.nano on the instruments and facilities that would benefit those pursuits.

Can you talk more about those instruments?

VB: There is a multistep process for requesting new tool sets, typically starting with a proposal by a faculty member. Even after it is fully outfitted, 5% to 10% of MIT.nano’s tools will be updated every year. Among the first tools to be installed will be a set of two cryo-electron microscopes—the technology that earned its inventors the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry—that will allow structural biologists to analyze complex and flexible structures, such as folds in protein chains, at the resolution of better than 0.3 nanometers [billionths of a meter].

How can the broader campus community and general public interact with the new building?

VB: The first- and second-floor corridors are public galleries that will showcase advancements developed at MIT.nano and around campus. Lobbies on the east and west sides provide public seating, and sprinkled throughout the building are nooks with whiteboards for brainstorming, tables for collaborating, conference spaces, and a large basement classroom brightened by a skylight. A courtyard path on the south side of the building, named the Improbability Walk, runs parallel to the Infinite Corridor all the way to Building 10. And to the north of the courtyard’s staircase, a plaza canopied by trees will offer a unique place for public gatherings in the shadow of MIT’s Great Dome.

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  1. How does one connect to initiatives here? Currently, I am consulting for a start-up in the area of water purification which has adapted a technology developed in a national laboratory, under license, added a nanolayer, creating an excellent water filter. We have been able to sell and distribute over 200,000 of these units in the most water-deprived areas, tackling a range of dissolved and undissolved salts including arsenic and fluoride affected waters. It is our intention to make this filter even more versatile.

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