Labs affected by LRT construction shift to new homes, continue research

The laser lab had to move due to vibrations from construction interfering with delicate experiments.

by Jeff Hargarten

Three University of Minnesota labs are moving to new homes away from the research-halting vibrations caused by light-rail construction.

A Kolthoff Hall laser lab used by the University’s Department of Chemistry is resuming its experiments after a semester-long move into a newly-renovated space in Smith Hall.

The Biomedical Nuclear Magnetic Resonance facility, or the NMR lab, and a chemical engineering lab in Amundson Hall  are also pressing forward with their relocations.

The moves are part of a deal struck between the Metropolitan Council and the University over Central Corridor light-rail  construction to mitigate damage to lab equipment. The NMR move to a space in the Mayo Memorial Building costs $25 million.

Half of that is funded from a 2011 state bonding bill. The remainder came from a number of University sources, including the vice president for research, University Services, the Academic Health Center and the College of Biological Sciences. The building was transformed into a “state-of-the-art” research laboratory with protection against electromagnetic interference, vibrations from traffic and water damage, said Leslie Krueger, chief of staff for University Services.

The transition has been done in phases so experiments can continue at the NMR lab.

The lab houses large and powerful magnets. On Tuesday, two magnets were moved from the old facility to join others, including three that were purchased and installed in late August, with more to follow.

The process of moving the magnets is “long and complex” because it involves warming each magnet up, shutting it down and then moving, re-cooling, energizing and recalibrating it, Krueger said.

“Depending on the magnet, this process can take months,” she said.

Meanwhile, David Blank, a University chemistry professor and manager of the laser lab, is resuming his research on how energy and charges move between molecules, which could lead to the next generation of solar cells.

The lab is used to perform experiments with “ultrafast nonlinear spectroscopy” –– a study of very short light pulses and how molecules change within tiny time scales. The experiments conducted in the laser lab are highly sensitive to vibration and minor changes in temperature, which is why Smith Hall will be its permanent home.

University student Anthony Diaz started working with Blank last semester — during the move — and didn’t get to participate in the laser experiments. Instead, he helped set up the new Smith Hall space and is spending time preparing for the continuation of the laser lab’s experiments this semester.

The laser lab move cost $860,000, of which the Metropolitan Council paid $601,000. The University’s College of Science and Engineering paid the remainder for equipment the school chose to upgrade in the process, Krueger said.

Blank said his team spent most of the fall semester moving equipment, which they’re still in the process of doing.

During the transition, his team was able to conduct some experiments with other equipment but nothing with their laser systems.

He said he expects to get the first of those experiments “back up and running” in about a week.