"The Oxford engineer who installed these facilities said that ours was the best in Canada," says Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) researcher Muthukumaran Packirisamy. It was his CFI grant application in 2003 that garnered the $1.1 million necessary for the equipment, the largest single applicant grant awarded by that agency.
Having the equipment on campus is a boon to Packirisamy's research in the field of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and nanotechnology.
"This is a huge leap for us. Before, we had to go to many different places to get something done, and we were limited by what they were able to do. What used to take us months and years will now take days and weeks." He added that students will be able to finish their thesis work much more quickly as a result. He also credited Vice-Provost Academic Relations, Rama Bhat, who had been chair of MIE, with having brought MEMS to Concordia in 1991.
At the opening of the ConSiM lab, Dean Robin Drew pointed out that MEMS research is now one of the signature areas of the university's research profile. He credited Packirisamy's tenacity with pushing the project forward.
Dandurand noted that the lab launch was held almost two years to the day of the start of her mandate here as Vice-President Research and Graduate Studies. She recalled that a visit to Packirisamy's offices was one of her first official tasks. She found him surrounded by "boxes and boxes and boxes" of still unpacked equipment. Three years after the funding had been allocated, and one year after the highly-sensitive equipment had been purchased, the lab was far from operational.
Dandurand credited the resources and energy of facilities management, the Office of Research and [Interim President] Michael Di Grappa with making the ConSiM lab a reality. In addition to the CFI grant, hundreds of thousands of dollars of resources, expertise and adjustments were required to make the equipment functional.
The lab itself occupies several rooms. The two primary roles of the equipment located in the lab are the disposition of extremely thin layers and etching onto materials for the development of microsystems. "The work is very precise, we work at the level of microns. The average hair is 80 to 120 microns thick," explained Packirisamy.
The technique involves various gases including extremely explosive silane, as well as ammonia. MIE technical officer Dainius Juras, who was instrumental in ensuring safety standards were maintained. The system to manage the storage, delivery, circulation and scrubbing of those gases is extremely complex.
Juras explained that delivery pipes had to be expertly welded, and, in the case of ammonia, double-walled to minimize the risk of leaks. Each of the connecting rooms is airlocked, hepa-filtered and monitored.
Outer rooms are maintained at class 10 000, this indicates up to 10 000 stray particles per cubic foot of space, compared with 35 000 000 particles in a typical urban environment.
Entering the inner rooms requires increasing amounts of protective gear. These ultra-sterile environments earn such facilities the nickname cleanroom.
The innermost equipment is maintained in a class 100 yellow room to protect the results of the photolithography (similar to blocking white light in a darkroom).
The rooms have sensors to ensure that oxygen is not being displaced by other gases, filtration levels are maintained and air is circulating. Rooms are shut down if sensors indicate they are not safe.
Currently the labs are maintained by PhD student Arvind Chandrasekaran. A committee will determine policies and procedures to allow researchers access to the equipment.
Packirisamy is building microsystems in partnerships with Valeo Management, the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations and the Alberta-based SciMed Technologies Inc.