The Technicians in the College's Shops: Architects, Contractors and Engineers
by Gregory J. Butera
Y.T. Lee was awarded the Nobel prize in 1986 for his contributions to our understanding of chemical reaction dynamics. A new type of vacuum chamber, built to his exacting specifications, put his investigations in the forefront of gas phase research. In the 1960s, George Pimentel contributed to the exploration of Mars via a College-built infrared spectrometer on NASA's Mariner probe. These are just two of many memorable examples of the tradition of research excellence in both Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley's College of Chemistry.
Our talented professors, postdocs and graduate students are frequently recognized for being at the forefront of new knowledge and discovery. Less well known, however, but vital for successful research, is a group of people behind the scenes. Providing support to our scientists are the technicians who help design and fabricate the equipment used in research. The shops are no small contributor to Berkeley's accomplishments. Researchers rely on shop ingenuity and technical expertise to further their studies while keeping costs to a minimum.
Norman Tom, manager of Shops and Research Support Services, graduated from Cal in 1983 and turned his part-time student job with the College Shops into his career. He now oversees work done in the Wood, Electrical, Glass, Pump Repair, Machine, and Student Shops. Here, raw materials are fabricated into just about anything needed in a lab. His staff are technicians and skilled craftspeople, knowledgeable in research-driven equipment and facility design. They understand how to deal with the experimental conditions affecting fabrication of research equipment, whether pressure or temperature effects or material properties. They construct and modify specialized laboratory facilities to accommodate a broad range of research and educational activities. The Student Shop has a dual role: it provides an educational opportunity for graduate students to learn how to make some of their own equipment, and provides them with the ability to fix equipment that inevitably breaks during a test run at 3 a.m.
John Ingham of the machine shop drilling plexiglass, soon to be part of a DNA sequencer.
John Ingham of the machine shop drilling plexiglass, soon to be part of a DNA sequencer.
Many research institutions have shops. At UC Berkeley, the Physics, Engineering, Life Sciences and Space Sciences departments also have shop support. The College of Chemistry has one of the largest units, and its work is well respected. "This past year we did $1.5 million in labor and material recharges among all shops combined," says Tom. Alex Shtromberg, Director of College Engineering, says our shops are often engaged by other departments, and occasionally by researchers at other universities and institutions. "Often, principal investigators with research at both Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the College of Chemistry have preferred to have service from the College Shops because we work very closely with them," says Shtromberg. The shops are an autonomous unit in the College, but they work closely with researchers and with the University Physical Plant department. First-class research requires cutting-edge research equipment. The Shops design, fabricate and repair much of this equipment. In today's world, where grant money is tight and government support is increasingly competitive, both time and money are at a premium. Earlier in the college's history, some researchers had one technician assigned to work with them, and some had their own shops department dedicated to their research. Now that times are leaner, only more efficient shops are successful.
Working with the customer
What are the keys to successful in-house technical support? According to Tom, "The shops focus on the goals of the researcher. We are customer-oriented, but it means more than just building something the way the customer asked. It means identifying and providing what the customer needs to be successful in their research. We work directly with our customer to develop a plan that meets their needs and takes into account time, cost, and quality in all phases of the process."
Eric Granlund, Machine Shop supervisor, adds, "We are familiar with their research and with the College. We have the ability to go into production while engineering development is still in progress. When necessary, we also can go from concept to application without the need for blueprints and at 50 percent less cost than could outside contractors." Tom says, "Our niche is the ability to start with a customer's scientific theory and experimental objectives and work with him to develop a concept. From there we can come up with a practical plan for producing results." Granlund adds, "That's where the shops can help. I think what is unique is the level of research support we provide. It is a lot broader here than anywhere else on campus. We work well with researchers as part of a team, developing concepts and making them work."
"We can get quick results through fast-tracking. We do not have to work sequentially through the project," says Tom. He adds, "We may do conceptual design on one part of the work while we fabricate another, while we plan yet another part of the project. Running phases in parallel saves time when the research has a critical time factor. We manage the risks and costs of fast tracking through good contingency planning. This allows us to adapt and adjust to changes as the project progresses. We can avoid or mitigate problems if criteria change during the equipment fabrication by putting in the effort to be prepared for the variety of possible outcomes." Tom says, "While others have attempted to use outsourcing to meet their needs, our shops have demonstrated repeatedly the superiority of our approach in achieving results."
The shops have contributed to the broad range of advances in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Peter Schultz, a pioneer in the new field of combinatorial chemistry, developed prototype equipment with the shops that allowed the development of combinatorial applications for semiconducting materials. Combinatorial chemistry for pharmaceuticals is widespread; its use in materials is still novel and somewhat experimental. Alex Pines, widely respected as a leader in the renaissance of nuclear magnetic resonance, has worked with shop technicians to build NMR probes. Gabor Somorjai, at the forefront of materials and surface science, has had several scanning and tunneling electron microscopes custom-built here for his research and for industrial collaborators. In Chemical Engineering, David Graves is analyzing semiconductor processes, using advanced etching technology that is supported by shop-fabricated vacuum fittings and ionization chambers. These scientists and their graduate students are achieving great success, and considerable credit is due to the sophisticated instrumentation used in their research.
Both Architects and Contractors
Bob Provencal, a grad student in Saykally's group, agrees that working closely with the shops can be rewarding. "If there are problems with your design, they will help you with it until it works." Saykally's group uses spectroscopy to analyze a variety of unique molecules. Provencal is studying the structure and properties of small carbon clusters, believed to be precursors for fullerene structures, like the soccer-ball-shaped C60 also known as Buckminster-fullerene. He creates these carbon molecules by focusing a visible laser onto a graphite rod. A piezoelectric crystal-controlled slit-nozzle valve, built by the Machine Shop, pulses high pressure helium over the resulting carbon vapor, which carries the carbon molecules into a vacuum chamber. This molecular beam is then studied using infrared spectroscopy to attempt to determine the structures and properties of the carbon clusters.
Slit-nozzle valve built for Provencal.
Slit-nozzle valve built for Provencal.
Design of the special nozzle was a constantly changing process. Provencal says, "On the slit nozzle valve, we needed to design the nozzle so it would fit in a space smaller than seven inches. Eric Granlund helped a lot with the design so we could fit the nozzle in the required space." He says rarely has a component made by the shops not performed well.
Two or three times per year, the shops are asked to fabricate a unique piece of equipment like Provencal's nozzle. Most recently, the Machine Shop completed the design and fabrication of a DNA sequencer for Professor Mathies' group. The Massively-parallel Capillary Array Electrophoresis (MCAE) device allows 1,064 separate DNA strands to be analyzed at a time. Granlund helped researcher Jim Scherer, working in Mathies' group, to design the equipment. Scherer says he had the idea for the DNA sequencer 18 months ago. He drew up some rough calculations. Mathies agreed it would work, so he discussed it with Eric in the Machine Shop and started the design. Granlund explains, "Jim wanted a mechanism that would allow a sequencing rate at least an order of magnitude greater than possible with current technology. Machinist John Ingham and I worked from that starting point to produce the device."
Scherer checking wire contacts on the DNA sequencer.
Scherer checking wire contacts on the DNA sequencer.
Scherer says the shop support has been great. "Their expertise has really helped. They had influence on the final look and design of the sequencer. They did all the fabrication, some of the design. They told us what we could and could not do with the idea." They also made suggestions, including different ways of doing things to achieve the results. He says, "They even suggest ways to rethink what you want to do. They provide a unique interface between the science and the mechanics and engineering of the device, to develop a finished product." Scherer adds, "You can improvise with the shop people because you constantly work with them. A strength over a commercial shop is that they don't require complete schematics and professional drawings to develop a part. And many parts are much cheaper to have the shops build."
Jeff Greenblatt and Marty Zanni, graduate students in Daniel Neumark's group, echo Scherer's sentiments. They worked closely with the Machine Shop to develop a unique vacuum chamber. Chambers are typically assembled in a series of t-shapes, leaving very little room for the experiment. The shops created a modular design in which panels can be removed from a large cube that allows easy modification, access to the interior of the chamber, and still brings the vacuum down to 10-8 torr. The overall vacuum system enables them to research reactions in the gas phase, with pressures sufficiently low that molecules undergo no collisions with residual background gas.
The big square chamber is unusual. They needed a special grade of stainless steel for the frame, aluminum plates, and a specialized joint design that allows relief points so the chamber would not distort when welded together. The chamber is based on Y. T. Lee's original design and improvements made by Neumark and his group. Greenblatt credits the shops with a great deal. "It is rare to find the kind of expertise that we have available in-house. We didn't have to do an outside bid, so it cost a lot less. The advice on size and dimensions was a great help, and the joint design that Granlund came up with had, so far as we knew, never been used before." Tom adds that "outside companies would not even have been able to perform the fabrication. The dimensional tolerances required by the device are quite extreme, and the design is difficult to manage. This was the first vacuum chamber fabrication out of our Machine Shop that used an organized team approach, and we broke all previous shop speed records. It was fabricated in a matter of weeks while Research Support Services was concurrently building the lab space for the experiment."
Greenblatt and Zanni in front of their vacuum chamber
Research Support Services
The shops' strengths are seen not only in equipment fabrication, but also in setting up laboratories. The Research Support Services group combines the Wood and Electrical Shops, and primarily works to set up laboratories, complete with customized casework, fume hoods, lab piping, electrical systems, and data and telecommunications. Electrical Shop technicians install, test, and certify computer network hardware and cabling, being the only group outside of the campus department of Data Communication and Network Services authorized for this work. They can address all physical lab requirements from floor to ceiling and in between.
For the NSF-funded lab renovations, part of a $4.5 million capital improvement project taking place on the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh floors of Latimer Hall, College Shops and Research Support Services built the prototype laboratories as part of cost and feasibility studies. As part of the main project, our shops worked in close coordination with building occupants, campus officials, and outside contractors to design, schedule, and complete the peripheral renovations and research group relocations required to free up the square footage for the project.
The shops also demonstrated their expertise in moving laboratories to the newly constructed Tan Kah Kee Hall. The generic labs in Tan, built basically on a modular design for cost-savings, had to be custom modified to accommodate the equipment and utility needs of 13 research groups that moved into the new building. Tom's group stepped up to the task. Dr. Enrique Iglesia and his students worked closely with Tom's people to design their lab space. "Four years ago, I had nothing, coming directly from industry at Exxon Research and Engineering in New Jersey," says Iglesia. "We had to build my labs from scratch, and build them so they could be moved into their new space once construction of Tan Hall was completed two years later. The move to Tan was so easy compared to a move I had at Exxon. A big part of this was that the shops helped us design the new space to our specifications. Tom followed through on everything, and was instrumental in getting my students involved in the process."
Tom Lawhead, the College's glassblower, working on his lathe.
The Shops as Educators
Iglesia sees a difference between the technical support given in industry and at a university, but highlights the educational role of the shops. "In my industry experience, the shops were bigger, but there was little interaction. Designs were built; they provided a service. Here, there is more than a service. Our bottom line for efficiency is not only money and time. It also includes how much of an objective is accomplished, and how they help turn out students with knowledge of mechanical details."
Iglesia believes the interaction with the shop technicians is a big part of the educational experience for his students. He says, "They help us look at the entire project. Space, efficiency, and the objective, not just building what we ask for. Planning and design are important skills for our students to learn. They may never build another piece of equipment again, or work as closely with the fabricators, but the knowledge of design they gain from this experience is invaluable." He points out that Chemical Engineering has more support here than if the department were in the College of Engineering, an advantage he appreciates.
Iglesia's main concern is that the shops are understaffed, and he fears the vital educational component will disappear. Although they are kept busy by the demands of the College, he hopes the technicians have time and interest to learn what researchers are doing, as a kind of intellectual payback for what they are teaching his students. "They are sufficiently interested and talented to learn about our chemistry. There is a porous boundary between what we and they know."
Collaborators in Research
Assistant Dean Peter Vollhardt says that without the shops' input, some pieces of equipment could not have been built, and the research would not have advanced to where it is today. "The shops are really a strength at UC Berkeley, and we should be using them to strengthen our grant proposals. We need to start looking at them as collaborators in research." Tom agrees with Vollhardt that researchers should talk to the shops during the early stages when thinking about their grant proposals. "Shop experience with fabrication support for other research could be helpful to the prospective grantee. Additionally, shops have connected researchers from different disciplines who are working on complementary issues." Tom adds, "The biggest successes and achievements for our College will come from collaborative efforts at all levels. Our strength will arise from collaborations between researchers and technical staff as well as from among researchers themselves. The potential of our shared knowledge and efforts is enormous."
Vollhardt hopes that more faculty and graduate students recognize the abilities of the shops. "They are both contractors and architects in one," he says. "Many times, students and researchers think they have to draw everything down and ignore what the technicians have to offer. It can be more productive to explain scientifically what is needed and get the shops to design how to do it. They are the ones who know the accessories and the pieces of equipment that work together well, and may have a better understanding of how to build what you need."
The vision for the College shops is shared by Tom and Vollhardt. Expected are stronger collaborations and a greater awareness of the role the shops play as partners with researchers. It appears the future of research at the College of Chemistry is bright, with the knowledge and experience of Berkeley scientists working in combination with the College's technical shops.