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Nanotechnology Research Lab: The Molecular Foundry

The Molecular Foundry’s stated mission is “providing support to researchers from around the world whose work can benefit from or contribute to nanoscience.” The lab offers this support in the form of access to expensive instruments, nanomaterials, and researchers with hefty credentials and expertise. According to their website, their hope is that by making these resources available, they will help further “the synthesis, characterization, and theory of nanoscale materials.”

Started in 2006, The Molecular Foundry is part of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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A so-called Scientific User Facility, this lab makes it possible for researchers to run tests and examine information that they might not have access to on their own. This access is global: Chemists, physicists, engineers, and others from around the world use these facilities, after their proposal has been approved by a review board.

Proposals are accepted twice a year and are approved based on their potential to get the best benefit out of using the Molecular Foundry’s resources. Use of the resources is free if an individual or organization agrees to keep their research in the public domain and publish their findings. Those who want to keep their data confidential must pay a fee.

The Foundry is a collection of six facilities. Beyond making their facilities available to others, they also perform their own research based on the following four themes:

  • Combinatorial nanoscience: This research focuses on the use of robotic synthesizers to obtain information about biological and inorganic nanostructures. These synthesizers can test thousands of compounds at one time, so they can quickly accumulate data about the properties of these structures.

  • Nanointerfaces: This area involves combining different types of nanomaterials, for example, inorganic nanoparticles with biological molecules, to create hybrid nanomaterials. These hybrid nanomaterials have special properties such as greater strength.

  • Multimodal in situ nanoimaging: Researchers with this focus use imaging techniques to investigate the interaction between nanoparticles in liquids and vapors.

  • Single-digit nanofabrication: This area of research involves building structures that have features less than 10 nanometers wide. One application of advances in this area will be the capability to pack more computing power or memory into integrated circuits on computer chips.

Each of the six facilities has its own focus, which falls into one of these areas:

  • Imaging and manipulation of nanostructures

  • Nanofabrication, especially advanced lithographic and thin-film processing

  • Inorganic nanostructures, including semiconductor, carbon, and hybrid nanostructures

  • Organic and macromolecular synthesis, for example synthesizing organic molecules into materials

  • Biological nanostructures

  • Theory of nanostructured materials used to help understand new principles and behaviors in nanoscale materials

Some of the Molecular Factory’s accomplishments to date include

  • Creation of nanocrystals that help to investigate activity in cells: These nanocrystal probes emit light to help researchers study components of living cells and other complex systems.

  • A low-cost method of producing solar cells: Using nanocrystals, a startup company called Solexant Corporation is manufacturing lower-cost solar cells for use in flexible solar panels. Solexant is aiming to produce solar cells that cost less to manufacture and are very effective in converting sunlight to electricity.

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