Somewhere in the University of Minnesota's newest lab building, scientists are working on a robot that's so tiny it can be injected into an eye. And come out in a tear.
That, in a nutshell, is one of the reasons the U built the $84.5 million Physics and Nanotechnology Building, which is making its formal debut this week.
"The basic idea is making things very small," explained Steve Campbell, director of the Minnesota Nano Center, which shares the space with the Physics Department.
Already, Campbell said, the state-of-the-art facility is attracting researchers from across the country, both in academia and private industry.
"This is the best equipment in the world," he said during a media tour of the building Wednesday.
Nanotechnology is a burgeoning field that scientists say could transform medicine and many other fields. A tiny robot, for example, could be programmed to deliver medication to a diseased eye. Or a particle that fits on a single cell could be used to detect and treat cancer.
In the new facility, scientists and technicians dressed head-to-toe in blue coveralls work in high-tech "clean rooms," which are busy 24 hours a day, Campbell said. The equipment is so sensitive that officials were worried about vibrations from the new light-rail line, a block away. But early tests show that all the precautions, including extra-thick concrete, seem to be working, Campbell said.
The building, tucked behind the Washington Avenue parking ramp on the East Bank campus, is flooded with natural light and physics-inspired artwork. It's designed to house labs and research space for about 200 faculty members, graduate students and others, who have been slowly moving in since January.
Even the two metal sculptures outside the entrance — of a kneeling man and woman — were designed by a physicist-turned-artist, Julian Voss-Andreae. Made of 150 slices of thin, polished steel, they appear solid from the side and almost invisible from the front. "You really can't appreciate [them] from just one angle," said Prof. Ron Poling, head of physics and astronomy.
An open house, with tours for the public, will be held Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.