When James Bond needs a new gizmo to carry out acts of spymaster derring-do, he heads straight for Q. CU scientists have a gadget team of their own.
To the physicists and chemists of CU-Boulder, Hans Green (Hist’95) and the JILA team say this: If you conceive it, we will build it.
James Bond has Q, the irascible tinkerer extraordinaire of the British Secret Service; CU-Boulder scientists have an entire squad of gadgetry wizards at the JILA Instrument Shop, which designs and manufactures custom equipment for work at the leading edge of physical science — stuff researchers need for their experiments but can’t buy anywhere.
From atom-capturing vacuum chambers to anodized aluminum tubes to precision optics, the shop’s six full-time instrument makers create devices that may exist only in researchers’ imaginations.
“Our main goal is to help get science out the door,” says Green as he demonstrates an electromagnetic coil in progress for JILA chair Deborah Jin’s research group. (JILA is a joint physics research institute of CU-Boulder and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST.)
Trim and fit in his late forties with spiffy safety goggles ever-present around his neck, the enthusiastic Green has worked as a machinist in the shop for more than 22 years and serves as its unofficial outreach liaison and tour guide. He’s been around long enough to play a role in many of the shop’s greatest successes, including an atom-cooling chamber that helped net a Nobel Prize in physics for JILA fellows Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman in 2001, as well as parts of the custom mirror mount that helped Jan Hall win the prize in 2005.
“For decades JILA has been a prolific and successful physics research institute,” says Green, “and I believe that success comes from a culture of cooperation and excellence.”
Located on JILA’s ground floor, the Instrument Shop was founded in 1962 in collaboration with NIST. Inside the spacious shop, scientific innovation has a decidedly workman-like feel. Wires cover the walls and floors like the roots of an overgrown oak. Hulking drill presses dating to the Johnson administration gleam with fresh metallic shavings atop a thick coat of sawdust. From open toolboxes spill a splendor of curiosities: Lenses and scalpels, welding torches and ruby ball bearings, electromagnets and an impossibly heavy, fist-sized hunk of tungsten. There’s a veritable menagerie of microscopes.
The mad-scientist clutter belies the extraordinary craftsmanship of Green, optics guru David Alchenberger, and their colleagues.
It's the job of the JILA Instrument Shop team to turn something imaginary into a working tool of science.
“The fact that our shops have been so consistently excellent, year in and year out, represents a major competitive advantage for JILA vis-à-vis other physics and chemistry departments around the country and around the world,” Nobel laureate Cornell once said, referring to the Instrument Shop and the nearby Keck Optical Measurement Lab. “The interaction between the scientists and the instrument makers is at a very high level.”
But for the Instrument Shop crew, little of it feels like work.
“The word I always return to is ‘fun,'” says Green, a history buff and mountain biker who began at the shop as an undergraduate apprentice.
He shows me his project for Deborah Jin. Thick copper tubing has been wound around two cylinders, resembling oversized spools of wool. The researchers will send hundreds of amps of electrical current surging through the coils to create a magnetic field, which in turn will generate a tiny cloud of atoms. Those atoms will be captured in a vacuum chamber, rocketed along a track to another apparatus, and cooled quickly to create a Bose-Einstein condensate, one of the coldest possible states of matter, just a few hundred billionths of a degree above absolute zero.
It’s all a reminder that sophisticated scientific feats sometimes begin with simple bolts, pins, glass and metal.
Every nook and cranny of the spacious shop brims with garage-style improvisations. In one corner, methanol bubbles frantically in an elaborate, multi-tiered glass still; the shop goes through so much of the stuff that it now purifies its own. A collection of warped metals and oddly shaped pieces of ceramics — “happy accidents,” Green calls them — are kept on hand for future reference and possible inspiration
The shop wears its productive legacy on its dust-coated sleeve. Nothing much here is shiny or new. (For that, walk down the hall to JILA’s 56,000-square-foot “X-Wing,” a series of advanced laboratories that opened in 2012.) But the shop’s results can be beautiful and utterly unique.
We visit Kyle Thatcher (MechEngr’14), who’s working on a double-walled, temperature-controlled chamber that will house an extremely stable sapphire reflector optical device. He began working in the shop as an undergraduate and is now in a three-year apprenticeship.
“The opportunity to design something new and interesting every day, and then actually making it, is truly amazing,” he says, adding that he appreciates the shop’s unique hands-on approach to engineering apprenticeships.
The shop seems to operate on egalitarian principles that make the most of each instrument maker’s aptitude and interests. As researchers bring them assignments, the craftsmen divvy them up, leading to an ever-changing slate of projects on each person’s workbench. Everyone has a specialty — dies, maybe, or glass machining, or injection molds. They’re all skilled welders.
The nature of the work is always changing. If researchers come to us with a challenge, we'll figure it out.
The instrument makers, like Green and his white-haired mentor, Alchenberger, who’s been with JILA since 1992, are mostly old pros. But the shop hires a handful of student workers each year. Calvin Schwadron (Astro’16) is one of three now.
He’s been paying his dues by installing shelf units above some of the laser tables — and along the way, learning firsthand about the latest in advanced physics research and creative solutions for technical problems, “whether they end up being intricate and complex or painfully simple.”
Brave CU-Boulder researchers who prefer a DIY approach to equipment production have a place in the shop, too, and Green makes himself available for instruction in basic machinery principles and techniques.
“We try to ensure that it’s an easy place to get things done,” he says.
Our early fall tour ends with a bit of effortless magic.
Green fires up a high-powered torch and plucks out a chipped test tube from a nearby bin. As he holds the glass to the flame, it glows, then quivers. He blows on the pliant material to create a marble-sized bubble on one side, which instantly hardens to form a chamber that could, theoretically, be used to trap air, or smoke, or even atoms.
“The nature of the work is always changing,” he says, “and if researchers come to us with a challenge, we’ll figure it out.”
Hans Green works in the JILA machine shop.
Photography by Glenn Asakawa