The absent AFM
10/17/2011 8:56 AM EDT
My first real internship at college was with a nanomanufacturing lab on campus; one of the many groups who are working to realize nano-scale memory storage. My job was focused on macro engineering, thankfully, designing and building accessories for the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM).
Our lab had just bought a brand-new AFM, thanks to a recent governmental contract from the military, and because of its high-resolution we had been learning the limitations of our lab space. Usually being on the 4th floor doesn't matter, but when you combine that minute building sway with the train tracks right next to us you get a lot of interference, especially at the molecular and atomic levels. Something had to be done to isolate the AFM from its environment, and unfortunately the fancy isolation chamber that the microscope was mounted inside wasn't doing the trick.
So the PhD student in charge of the AFM came up with a plan: move the entire setup into the basement laboratory located in one of the nearby buildings. The basement lab wasn't in a clean room like the primary lab, but with some basic precautions we were able to bring the space up to par. Within a day we had the AFM moved, isolated, and were getting some of the best scans that we'd ever gotten. But down in our basement lab we didn't know who was touring the main lab that day...
Turns out the same day that we moved the AFM out of the primary lab and into the basement was the day that the military sponsors had chosen to take a walk-through of the entire lab. Our director had been proudly showing the delegation, made up of two Generals and an Admiral, around the primary lab. As he walked past the viewing windows into the clean room he rattled off some of the work that was done in each section of the clean room:
"Here is our gowning area, where each of the technicians has to follow a very rigorous gowning procedure designed to keep all contaminants out of our clean rooms."
"This next room is our primary fabrication room. It's actually on par, particle-count wise, with IBM's processor manufacturing rooms"
"And in here is our newest piece of equipment, the... WHERE IS MY AFM?!?!"
This AFM that he was trying to show to the Generals was the same one that we had moved earlier in the day, and his worry was definitely justified: This AFM is a multi-million-dollar piece of equipment that was, at that time, the crowning jewel of the centers imaging/manipulation department. It only took him a few minutes to figure out what had happened (thanks to a nearby grad student who managed to mumble out an explanation before being completely overcome with fear), but the damage had been done. Only the stellarly-clear images that we had captured were able to save us from the Directors wrath, but even then we had to move the AFM back into the primary lab. At least when the director wasn't on vacation...