Complex lab equipment moved intact to minimize downtime

Complex lab equipment moved intact to minimize downtime

Rice News staff

It looked like a scene from ”Mission: Impossible”: A laser table the size of a car was moved through a hole in a wall, lifted by crane, pushed by hand on pneumatic carts and lowered through a trap door into a high-tech basement lab.

Dozens of spectators gathered to watch the scene unfold Thursday at the new Brockman Hall for Physics, even as construction workers and landscapers continued putting finishing touches on the 110,000-square-foot facility.

Faculty and staff from Rice’s Department of Physics and Astronomy are moving into Brockman, but the move of Professor Tom Killian’s laboratory from Dell Butcher Hall into Brockman’s basement on Thursday was no routine move. Killian’s lab contained tons of equipment, including two large laser tables filled with delicately tuned lenses and devices.

“These moves are like a big puzzle,” said Rice’s Erik Knezevich, project manager for Brockman Hall. “The pieces have to be put in place in just the right order.”

And the scene played out Thursday will be repeated several times over the next two months as laboratories with similarly massive and delicate instruments move into Brockman.

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Killian’s lab was the first to move into the basement because it contained the heaviest single item of all the moves — a 16-foot-long steel laser table that weighs nearly 3 tons.

“It took 10 years to put these experiments together and it’s a really complicated arrangement of cables and computers and optical elements,” Killian said. “We made the choice to leave a lot of our experiments intact, which makes them a little more fragile. But it should really help us get up and going much faster on the other side.”

Brockman has state-of-the-art lab space for research in atomic, molecular and optical physics — the field that Killian specializes in along with Rice colleagues Randy Hulet and Barry Dunning. The building will also house labs for biophysics, condensed matter physics, nanoengineering and photonics. But Killian’s, Hulet’s and Dunning’s moves are the most complicated, largely because of their large, fragile and specialized laser equipment.

Faculty and staff from Rice’s Department of Physics and Astronomy have begun their move from Dell Butcher Hall (above) to the new Brockman Hall for Physics (below). The team carefully moved equipment from Professor Tom Killian’s lab, which included two large laser tables filled with delicately tuned lenses and devices.

“In our lab we study atoms and plasmas at ultracold temperatures, temperatures as low as a millionth of a degree above absolute zero,” Killian said. “At these incredibly low temperatures, matter behaves in very bizarre ways. We can see atoms acting like waves instead of particles. And we can make plasmas that have strange liquid-like properties that are similar to the interior of Jupiter or the surface of a neutron star.”

To cool the atoms to such temperatures, Killian uses lasers to trap the atoms and slow them down. The laser beams, vacuum chambers and related equipment sit on heavy tables that are extremely sensitive to vibrations. In his old lab in Dell Butcher Hall, Killian said, some of his experiments really only worked well at night when people weren’t opening and closing doors in the building.

He won’t have to worry about that in Brockman, where the concrete floor of the basement is two feet thick — about four times the thickness of a normal floor. The building also has ultraclean power systems for lab equipment, top-of-the-line air filtration systems and a host of other design features that will make it easier for Killian and Rice’s other experimental and applied physicists to do their research.

Killian’s largest laser table is 16 feet long — so large that temporary holes were left in some interior walls of the basement just to accommodate its move. Once Killian’s move is complete, others can follow in a prescribed order.

Julie Walker, a senior project manager for iOffice, the contractor that’s handling the Brockman moves, said she struggled to come up with a plan for moving the tables.

“These are extremely heavy, valuable and delicate pieces, and I was literally having a sleepless night thinking about this when I thought about calling the museum to ask how they move their exhibits,” Walker said. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston referred her to a local company, TYart, which specializes in moving and installing fine art, including mammoth sculptures.

To move Killian’s tables, a hole was cut into the wall of his lab and a section of windows was removed from Dell Butcher Hall. A crane moved the tables part way, and the TYart team pushed them from Dell Butcher to Brockman on pneumatic carts. Once at Brockman, the tables were lowered into the basement through a removable section of the first-floor hallway.

The complex laboratory moves will continue though May. Hulet’s lab — which will be moved in three phases — will require that some walls be removed from the Space Science Building. In addition to faculty from Physics and Astronomy, several researchers from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering will also move into the basement and upper-level laboratories in Brockman.

“It’s going to be a huge improvement to have everybody doing similar research in one building,” Killian said. “In particular, for the laser people on campus, we’ll all be in the basement. We already have plans to send optical fibers back and forth between the labs so we can make better use of the lasers that other people have. I really expect it will make a big difference in our research.”

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.