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Home > News > Delicate science

January 5th, 2010

Delicate science

What are chemists, physicists and engineers working on in the quietest building in the world?

Two thick steel doors shut softly behind me. I'm not locked into this boxy, cell-like "quiet lab" deep in the bowels of Bristol University's new Centre for Nanoscience and Quantum Information, but it feels like I might as well be. A journalist could disappear here: no sound penetrates, and no one would hear my screams …

A constant stream of traffic drives past the centre, but the springs and dampers upon which this new building has been constructed ensure that very little noise, and virtually no vibration whatsoever, impinges on the finely tuned experiments on nanoparticles taking place in a series of quiet labs all along the basement corridor.

This small lab, however, is the stillest of them all: having been given the tour of the basement, I'm now standing in the quietest room in the quietest building in the world, and I can almost hear my heart beat.

Losing all auditory references does funny things to your balance, and I lurch slightly as the double doors open to let me out. It's a relief to hear the faint underlying buzz that indicates life as we know it.

I've come to meet Dr Neil Fox who's going to tell me how sunlight shining on diamonds can generate electricity. It's theoretically possible, but doing it cheaply and consistently is the tricky bit. The heat contained in the sun's rays, clearly, comes for free, but the problem with solar power to date, explains Fox, has been the cost and logistics involved in generating usable electricity on a large scale.


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