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Nanotech Research Building Strictly Controls Vibrations

Exterior rendering of the five-story Nanotech Research Building
The five-story, world-class research center that is being constructed on the campus of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom will enable scientists to conduct in-depth research on the material graphene. Jestico + Whiles

Engineers are using physical separation and massive concrete structural elements to strictly control the vibrations in a new institute dedicated to the production of a promising nanomaterial.

March 5, 2013—As improvements in nanotechnology bring advances in electronics, they also continually challenge architects and engineers to create laboratories that meet strict standards for research, for even the slightest vibration can distort the images of cameras and microscopes and influence the results of experiments.

The need for “clean rooms” and sturdy laboratories in which everything from temperature and humidity to air purity and vibration is strictly controlled is the driving concern for designers collaborating on the National Graphene Institute, a nanotech research facility planned for the University of Manchester, in the United Kingdom.

Before beginning work on the five-story building that will house a world-class research center for the development of the material known as graphene, the designers met with a Nobel laureate in physics who would be using the lab and sought information from the manufacturers of laboratory equipment to ensure that the building would meet scientists’ needs, says Haydn Springett, a civil and structural engineer with Ramboll Group, of Copenhagen (København), Denmark, which was part of the design team led by the architect Jestico + Whiles, of London. The team also included CH2M HILL, of Englewood, Colorado.

“The building has to perform in terms of vibration before anything else,” Springett says. “That drives the form of the building.” The $92-million structure, more than half of which will be funded by the U.K. government, was recently given planning consent, and construction is expected to be complete by 2015. 

Aerial rendering of the Nanotech Research Building

The mass of the building and all of its structural components were
designed to minimize vibrations from both the street and the
machinery inside. Jestico + Whiles

Graphene comprises single layers of carbon atoms, and given its strength and flexibility, as well as its conductivity properties, it has been involved in numerous patents since it was first isolated by professors at the University of Manchester in 2004, according to Julian Dickens, an architect with Jestico + Whiles. Proponents say graphene holds promise for advances in areas ranging from Internet technologies to medicine.

Dickens says the design team realized that, given the site’s location on a busy urban university campus, vibration would be an especially tricky problem, so engineers surveyed the area with accelerometers and video cameras to measure vibrations and catch the sources of vibration on film.

Although accelerometers can detect vibrations a mile away, Springett says the engineers found that most of the vibrations came from traffic rumbling over potholes on a busy street nearby. By entering the vibration measurements into a computer-generated model, the engineers simulated how vibrations at the site would affect their design.

The vibrations were significant enough that the designers ruled out putting a clean room, with its strict vibration standards, on the ground floor. Instead, plans call for a basement 13 ft deep founded on sandstone bedrock to give the building’s primary clean room a more stable environment.  

But with limited space on the crowded campus, designers needed a second clean room. Fortunately, this one had somewhat less stringent vibration standards, so Springett says the designers opted to put it on the floor just above the ground level (in the United Kingdom, the first floor).

Cross section diagram of building, displaying the mechanical and electrical equipment spread over several floors, all located on one side of the facility

The mechanical and electrical equipment, though spread over
several floors, are all located on one side of the facility, while clean
rooms in the basement and first floor are located on the other.
Jestico + Whiles

In addition to the site’s inherent vibration sources, the clean rooms themselves generate vibrations. The need to have air circulating through fine filters means that the building must house an unusually large number of generators and heating and air-conditioning equipment—all with moving parts. To reduce vibrations from within the building, the designers put all of the plant equipment on one side of the structure, separated by a 50 mm gap in the concrete slab foundation. So while the institute will appear to be a single building from the exterior, it will be divided structurally on the interior.

In contrast to earthquake-resistant buildings, which are often designed to move when a shock wave hits, vibration-resistant buildings call for a stiff, heavy design. “We had to make the column spacing closer together and make the columns bigger,” Springett says. “The more mass you can get into the building [the better, because it] takes away the vibration.” For this reason, the foundation is a concrete slab 50 percent thicker than necessary for a normal office building—450 mm instead of 300 mm. Placing the concrete columns closer together—6.6 m apart instead of the more typical 7.5 m—also makes for a stiffer structure. As an added measure, the designers stabilized the perimeter through greater use of concrete shear walls than is normal.

While designing a building to house highly sophisticated laboratories on a crowded university campus brought challenges, Dickens says enabling researchers to work in the same building with the businesspeople who will be seeking to commercialize graphene was rewarding.

“It’s not just a technical exercise. It’s about the quality of the space that we created for these guys to work in,” Dickens says. As he sees it, the goal is to “design buildings that encourage people to come out of their offices and breakout spaces and seminar spaces and encourage people to exchange ideas.”



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