"What we have here is the Bell Labs of the 21st century," proclaimed Mike Lazaridis, co-founder and vice-chairman of Research In Motion, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre (QNC) last week. Nestled in the middle of the University of Waterloo's campus, the new facility is designed to bring researchers from quantum computing and nanotechnology together under one roof. "We're going to have an insight that we believe will be unique," Lazaridis says of bringing the two disciplines together. And just as Bell Labs fostered a boom of innovation leading to the creation of Silicon Valley in California, Lazaridis believes that the QNC will have a similar impact on the troubled Waterloo region.
"It doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."
While separate fields of study, both disciplines are concerned with matter on an incredibly small scale. Nanotechnology deals with the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular level, while quantum computing hopes to exploit the laws of physics to — among many other things — shrink transistors to the size of individual atoms. As we look to create smaller and smaller devices, both fields have become important avenues of scientific research. "There are many institutes of nanotechnology around the world, and similarly institutes for quantum computing," says university president Feridun Hamdullahpur. "They exist in other parts of the world. But to put the two of them together — this is the first of its kind. It doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."
The 285,000 square foot building will be shared by the Institute of Quantum Computing and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, each of which will occupy separate halves of the facility. The exterior features a distinctive honeycomb-like steel structure surrounding some of the upper-most windows, while the inside includes a hypnotic set of suspended stairs. White boards cover many of the walls in case of emergency bouts of inspiration and areas like meeting rooms and offices are laid out in such a way as to encourage people from both sides to bump into one another. Meanwhile, state-of-the-art vibration dampening prevents sensitive areas like the cleanroom and fabrication facility from moving more than a fraction of the width of a human hair.
One of the more striking areas of the QNC is a six-story-tall atrium that serves as the connective tissue between the two disciplines. This open area — with windows lining seemingly every surface, bathing it in a constant stream of natural light — is what the university describes as an "informal gathering place." Anyone is free to wander in and it doubles as a handy shortcut for cutting across campus. It was here that Lazaridis addressed the crowd on opening day, explaining that the goal of the QNC is "to quote one of our most famous Canadians: 'to boldly go where no man has gone before.'"
And the people behind the $160 million building — which Hamdullahpur calls "the most expensive building in this university and in this country" among scientific facilities — are nothing if not ambitious. While Bell Labs gave birth to prominent innovations like the transistor and the laser, Hamdullahpur believes that the fruits of the QNC could lead to everything from "lighter and safer cars" and "batteries that will store a lot more energy" to "computers that will do things that we can't even imagine." Lazaridis, meanwhile, describes the potential applications as "mind-boggling," citing future developments like "drugs that are targeted at individual cells" and both self-healing and invisible metals.
Self-healing and invisible metals could be in the QNC's future
This level of innovation could help reinvigorate a region whose destiny has largely been tied to that of the much-troubled RIM — a company ironically co-founded and run until very recently by the man bankrolling this new facility. As the BlackBerry maker has struggled to keep up with Apple and Google in the smartphone race, reports of layoffs have been all too common. It's good news for those who live in the Waterloo area, then, that the most tangible benefit of the QNC's future success will be the creation of jobs, according to Lazaridis. "It's developments leading to products," he explained. "It's products leading to companies. And it's companies leading to jobs." And those companies, he believes, will help turn the region into a place he calls the "Quantum Valley."
Of course, reaching such lofty goals requires special people, and Hamdullahpur says that the school has already seen an increase in both the quantity and quality of student applications. Unsurprisingly, expectations are high. "We believe that this place has that capacity, that potential to generate the next Nobel Prize winner," he says. And while we should take these statements with a grain of salt, since both Hamdullahpur and Lazaridis have much at stake — one is the president of the university while the other has donated more than $100 million to the QNC project — they're not the only ones that see the building's potential.
"It's clear to me that this place is special," Stephen Hawking said during the opening ceremony. "This institution will advance our understanding of matter and movement, illuminating deep mysteries with the light of scientific discovery."
Maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Waterloo after all.