Images by Tom Rossiter Photography

The appetite for discovery at the new William Eckhardt Research Center was articulated by the University of Chicago’s very first Nobel laureate, astrophysicist Albert A. Michelson. “If a poet could at the same time be a physicist, he might convey to others the pleasure, the satisfaction, almost the reverence, which the subject inspires,” Michelson wrote in his 1903 book Light Waves and Their Uses.

The Eckhardt Research Center enables precision science of many kinds, encompassing engineering in the quantum realm as well as studies of distant planets and cosmic evolution. In this sense too it carries on the spirit of Michelson, whose studies of light influenced microscopy as well as astronomy.

On Oct. 29 the UChicago community is celebrating the dedication of the Eckhardt Research Center, named for Chicago futures trader and alumnus William Eckhardt, SM’70, in recognition of his generous philanthropy to the sciences at the University of Chicago. The center is home to the Institute for Molecular Engineering and several sections of the Physical Sciences Division, including the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics.

“We are excited that the William Eckhardt Research Center provides a sophisticated and beautiful home to support our distinctive programs in molecular engineering and astrophysics,” said Provost Eric Isaacs. “IME has been successful in building a new model for molecular-level research with broad impact, and this facility will allow for even more ambitious work. Equally significant, this building befits the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics’ long tradition of scientific eminence, and its continuing importance in that field of study.”

UChicago scholars Angela Olinto, David Awschalom, Andreas Seifahrt, and Jacob Bean discuss the new Eckhardt Research Center. Video Link: (Video by UChicago Creative)

The research center was designed by HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. James Carpenter Design Associates, a multi-disciplinary design firm known for their innovative work with light and glass, provided design consulting services to HOK and was the principal designer for the building enclosure.

The structure will be equipped with high-performance laboratories that will allow researchers to translate quantum information science into new technologies, develop instruments that can detect planets orbiting distant stars, and much more.

“We will find Earth-like planets and maybe signs of life from these planets,” says Angela Olinto, the Homer J. Livingston Professor and chair of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “We will explore the most extreme events of the universe and try to explain what causes these events. We will study the first stars in the first galaxies ever assembled in the universe. We will also probe the most fundamental forces of the universe in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang.”

Sharing the Eckhardt Center holds particular potential for new collaborations and interactions among scholars in the Institute for Molecular Engineering and the Physical Sciences.

“We will really span activities from the tiniest to the most gigantic,” said Dean Matthew Tirrell, the founding Pritzker Director of IME and Argonne National Laboratory’s deputy director for science. “Molecular engineering can contribute to astronomy and astrophysics via fabrication of new detectors and other instrumentation.”

Fostering partnerships and interactions

One of the unique aspects of the Eckhardt Research Center is the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility. Located in the first basement of the center, the innovative facility will allow for fabricating new features and devices at the nanoscale level, supporting IME’s goal to solve societal issues with molecular-sized tools and solutions.

The nanofabrication lab “provides a unique research and development environment for the academic and industrial scientist interested in pursuing state-of-the-art micro- and nanoscale fabrication,” says Andrew Cleland, the John A. MacLean Sr. Professor for Molecular Engineering Innovation and Enterprise, who will lead the facility. “We anticipate drawing researchers from the Chicago area, the Midwest, and nationally, both to use this facility and to establish collaborations with IME and UChicago researchers.”

UChicago Prof. David Awschalom
Prof. David Awschalom outside the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility, an innovative facility for fabricating devices at the nanoscale level. (Photo by Joel Wintermantle)

The breadth of scholarship at the Eckhardt Research Center is a good match for the Kavli Institute, which explores the profound connections between physics at the smallest and largest of scales—from quarks to the cosmos—with a focus on dark matter, dark energy, and how the universe began. The Kavli Institute will collaborate with IME researchers to create detectors for instruments that will make the most precise measurements of the cosmic microwave background—the microwave echo of the Big Bang.

“To recruit top faculty and top students requires the facilities to allow them to do the best science they can do,” says Rocky Kolb, dean of the Physical Sciences Division and the Arthur Holly Compton Distinguished Service Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics. “With the Eckhardt Research Center, we will have the facilities and the infrastructure that will allow our faculty and students to explore the cosmos—in ways they have never been able to before.”

Exploring new fields and pushing boundaries

The center will create the first dedicated home for IME since it was created in 2011 in partnership with Argonne. Having all IME researchers in the same location, with diverse backgrounds ranging from chemical engineering to engineering physics to biomedical engineering, will be beneficial for future partnerships within IME itself, Tirrell said.

The idea of pushing research frontiers that cross disciplinary boundaries has permeated the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Kavli Institute, and the Institute of Molecular Engineering for years.

“We have, in astronomy, a reputation of being an innovative department that does new things,” says Kolb. “We were the first department to do astrophysics. Particle cosmology really was developed here. It’s part of our nature to explore new fields and transcend boundaries.”

—Story includes material that first appeared on the Institute for Molecular Engineering website.

Originally published on October 27, 2015.