Week 7: Counting 602000000000000000000000 Atoms Part 1

On Friday we toured NIST with Alexandra and Dr. John Suehle, her mentor. We visited so many labs that I’ve probably lost track of a few, but these are the highlights. Our first stop was in the electron microscopy suite – though the star of the show wasn’t even an SEM. For what I put down to a lab being reused from some other purpose, the walls of the antechamber and SEM space were covered in anechoic foam; however, it transpired that when people are talking in the space around the microscope, it’s possible to reconstruct the conversation based on the vibration of the sample in the image. After spending quite a while discussing the various samples the first machine could image and why most of their work starts on that one (mostly the larger working volume, as well as the option of a cryogenic stage to hold biological samples), we briefly stopped at another machine that currently holds the world resolution record at half a nanometer. Then we turned a corner and beheld a microscope whose exterior size was at least five times that of the first machine, and which as I mentioned, doesn’t even use electrons: it uses helium ions. It’s capable of imaging many exciting samples, including carbon nanotubes, which by the thinness of their walls barely interact with electrons in the SEM machines. Apparently it’s virtually a one-of-a-kind capability, and the device itself is quite rare – as if SEMs weren’t rare enough in the first place.

NIST is absolutely huge, and much bigger than even its .37 mile long central hallway would indicate: beneath almost the entire footprint of the central buildings are two or three more floors of basements, with the lowest rooms’ footings on the bedrock. This makes sense in the context of our next destination, the coordinate measuring lab.

Continued in Part 2

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