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.
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.
And all this high, or rather low-pressure, science is in search of one thing: a better way to make electronics.
Sharp’s Oxford Labs operate on the cutting edge of scientific advances, and it’s no secret that modern electronics are intricate, but the really fancy technology inside our favourite gizmos is beyond the limits of human dexterity: the gadgets you lust after in high street stores simply couldn’t be created by hand.
A laser, for example, requires layers of material to be applied with molecular precision to a wafer, or substrate. It’s the nature of that material which gives the laser its colour, and is the building block for CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray and many other electronics.
Red lasers, like those used in CD and DVD players, are built on top of gallium arsenide wafers, while blue lasers for Blu-ray devices require a sapphire base on which to grow.
Sharp’s engineers choose the wafer carefully to get the right effect and colour spectrum, before slipping it through an air-lock and into the belly of the MBE.
Once inside, it’s impossible to touch the wafer, but Sharp’s scientific minds have thought of ways to prove and prod: They use magnetic poles, with a handle on the outside of the MBE, to move the wafer into position. A pyrometer lets operators measure temperature remotely too, and despite being separated by a physical barrier, it’s possible for the scientists to have complete control.
Once ready, a crystal is grown on top of the wafer. Chemicals in canisters around the MBE’s edge are heated, then exposed to the wafer using shutters. Those shutters open to allow those chemicals to evaporate across the internal vacuum of the MBE in precisely controlled orders and quantities.
Since the MBE’s vacuum chamber contains no barriers or impurities, that evaporation process deposits material with absolute precision on top of the wafer substrate.
Dr Ian Thompson, Director of Business Development at Sharp Laboratories of Europe explains that “whatever your substrate is, the crystal structure will be what the first atom mimics. Whatever you layer on top follows its orientation.” The process is very controlled and, inside the MBE, a component literally grows before scientists’ eyes through the tiny circular viewing windows along its edge.
In Sharp’s experimental MBE, Oxford’s scientists can grow a small platter of LEDs in half a day. On a commercial scale, they’ll grow four times each day, generating thousands of LEDs per platter, to produce anything from tens of thousands to millions of finished components with each 24 hour cycle.
This smaller MBE is a baby compared to those found in factories, but serves as an incubator for inventions yet to make it to high street shelves.
It’s worth bearing the MBE in mind next time you stroll past a science park. Behind those walls, machines could be growing your next must-have gadget.