Deep in the bowels of a sleepy Oxford science park is a small room. There’s just enough space for three people in lab coats to shuffle around simultaneously. This is the heart of Sharp’s research and development facility.
Tucked away on the outskirts of one of Britain’s most prestigious university towns, it houses over 100 brilliant minds spanning 19 nationalities, and more trade secrets than we dare to reveal here. But today, we’re visiting a sleeping giant.
Ushered into Sharp’s laboratory, we’re met by a gigantic contraption festooned with stainless steel fittings and intricate wiring: This is a machine that can grow gadgets. This is Sharp’s super-cooled MBE machine.
The MBE is named after the process it performs: Molecular Beam Epitaxy. Transferring atoms from one place to another almost individually, depositing them in layers to gradually build the basis of high tech electronics. From lasers to LEDs and even solar panels, this is where Sharp’s engineers craft the gadgets of tomorrow, one atom at a time.
Its operators are able to manipulate objects inside its hulking frame without touching them, using magnets and sensors to play a sort of scientific ping-pong with the periodic table, but instead of bouncing a ball around, these men and women are coating slivers of sapphire and silicon with microscopic layers of gallium and indium to form the building blocks of next-gen electronics.
A hostile environment, perfect for electronics
Inside the MBE is an otherworldly environment in every sense. It houses an almost perfect vacuum in its ultra-clean, ultra-cold belly. The MBE has more in common with outer space than the Oxford countryside in which it sits.
Constantly chilled using liquid nitrogen, pumped in from a giant tank outside, it’s designed to be a perfectly pure space, where Sharp’s best minds can tinker with the building blocks of chemistry and physics.
Without liquid nitrogen, Sharp’s researchers simply couldn’t do their job.
Jon Heffernan, Director of Advanced Optical Devices at Sharp Laboratories of Europe explains that, without a super-cooled interior, impurities could be free to roam the inside of the MBE and destroy any hope of success for its operators.
“We use vacuum pumps to suck everything out of the chamber, but that will only get you to a certain level,” he says, motioning to the huge pipes entering the building through an exposed brick wall.
“We need liquid nitrogen. That sucks material, particularly impurities, out of the chamber. They land on this cold surface and, a bit like sticking your tongue to an ice lolly, they won’t come off. That creates the really high vacuum we need for the MBE to work.”
To condition the MBE to its optimum performance and to create that all-important vacuum takes Sharp’s scientists around a week. It’s kept at around a billionth of the normal atmospheric pressure of the Earth’s surface, coming close to the conditions found in outer space.
The science, and chemicals, used to maintain this extraordinary pocket of perfection are highly exotic.
How to grow a gadget
And all this high, or rather low-pressure, science is in search of one thing: a better way to make electronics.