DIY at the Columbia Physics Design Lab

An old machine shop in Pupin Hall has a new life as a makerspace for scientists to imagine the future of physics.

Ellen Neff
June 09, 2022

Pupin Hall has a storied history at Columbia University. Built in 1927, the building was home to scientists who pioneered atomic and nuclear physics, peered into the depths of the universe, and led the way into the first quantum revolution.

Today that tradition continues, but cutting-edge experiments need cutting-edge parts … often yet to be invented. At the Columbia Physics Design Laboratory, faculty and graduate students now have a DIY space to imagine the future and build the parts to get there.

Those parts have included things like turn-table stands to study the quantum properties of atom-thin sheets, flanges for ultracold vacuum chambers destined to house quantum materials for imaging and manipulations, and components for new laser setups. “It’s generally a lot of very small pieces to very complex, very cool systems,” said Clara Wilson, a staff engineer who joined Columbia last year from JILA to help re-invent the space. 

For much of the 20th century, scientists had to build nearly everything for their experiments themselves, Columbia physicist Cory Dean explained, so university machine, woodworking, and even electrical shops were the norm. But over time, commercial vendors began popping up to supply specialized parts and pieces, and university support became less common. 

Pupin Hall maintained a shop where a machinist would still make parts to order, but a new generation of physicists at Columbia—including Dean—wanted to take the process into their own hands. “To support modern physics we need an on-site space to build, overseen by a skilled individual who can provide the tools and guidance to help us realize totally novel ideas,” Dean said. “The Design Lab will play a critical role in the future of physics at Columbia.”

Today, Pupin Hall, Room 1111 is a collaborative makerspace where users come together to brainstorm ideas with each other and Wilson to explore how best to implement them on the different machines available.

The machinery runs the gamut from cutting-edge, including a trio of 3D printers and a newly installed laser cutter, to age-old standbys like massive iron mills and drill presses. The oldest piece of equipment is a band saw dating back to the 1950s, while Wilson’s favorites are the lathes from the 1960s that still work perfectly after all those years. “Plus, they are painted a really beautiful Columbia blue. I don’t know who did that or when, but it adds a nice touch,” she said. 

The newer machines add capabilities for so-called additive manufacturing, which can have a lower barrier to entry and is more amenable to computer-aided design than the classic iron-working pieces, Dean noted. For example, his lab recently used a 3D printer to build special brackets for loading and unloading quantum material samples into their instruments for measurements; that process took just a few weeks, whereas with a classic machine the training and machining involved might have taken months. 

Regardless of machine choice—each comes with advantages and disadvantages—the on-site shop allows iteration, flexibility, and collaboration in a way that shipping designs off to a vendor doesn’t. “We can come to Clara with a problem, work through how to solve it, and then start building and re-building until we have exactly what we need,” Dean said. 

In addition to supporting experiments, the Design Lab provides students the opportunity to learn valuable design and manufacturing skills. “I want the Design Lab to help round out a student’s education while providing them the resources to tinker, and I hope have fun with the technology we have here,” Wilson said. 

To gain access, interested users will need to take two safety training courses. The Design Lab has 24 users so far and while at the moment is only available to Physics Department faculty and students, Wilson hopes to grow those numbers and expand beyond to other departments soon. 

“I want everyone who uses the space, myself included, to experiment and to learn from each other,” said Wilson. “There’s a lot of exciting science happening at Columbia, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”