The U.S. Navy, known for its enormous aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, now has the opportunity to exploit the world of the very small for its next generation of technology. Future technology will be increasingly based upon materials and devices fabricated at the atomic scale (measured in nanometers - billionths of a meter). And because it understands both nanoscience and the needs of the Navy, NRL is uniquely positioned to bring that knowledge to bear to benefit our warfighters and our nation.

Toward increasing that understanding, NRL established in 2001 an Institute for Nanoscience to conduct multidisciplinary research at the intersection of the fields of materials, electronics, and biology at the nanometer length scale. The Institute serves as NRL's nucleus of collaborative activity in this rapidly evolving research area. The Institute is seen as a venue to bring together scientists with disparate training and backgrounds to attack common goals at the intersection of their respective fields. The Institute provides scientific leadership for the Navy and DOD to identify and exploit those cross-disciplinary opportunities at this length scale that had been previously inaccessible.

In support of this new initiative, NRL opened in October 2003 a new Nanoscience Research Laboratory. The central core of the new building, a 5000 square foot class 100 cleanroom, has been outfitted with the newest tools to permit lithographic fabrication, measurement, and testing of devices. This includes deposition systems for metals and insulators, optical mask aligners, and etching systems. This is supported by chemistry stations and fume hoods for spinning on photo resists, baking, and developing the patterns that ultimately result in small devices and circuits. Additional new equipment includes an electron beam writer for fabricating features down to 10 nanometers; a focused ion beam workstation for 10 nanometer-scale machining of materials; a scanning electron microscope for inspection of these small-scale devices, an optical pattern generator, several reactive ion etchers and metal deposition systems.

The cleanroom also contains an atomic force microscope, optical microscopes, optical index characterization, scanning stylus surface measurement, a probe station for electronic measurements on finished devices, and a wire bonder to connect the circuits in completed microchips to plug-in carriers.

In addition to the cleanroom facility, Building 250 also contains 5000 square feet of controlled-environment laboratory space, which is available to NRL researchers whose experiments are sufficiently demanding to require this space. There are 12 of these laboratories within the new building. All of them provide shielding from electromagnetic interference and very low floor vibration and acoustic levels. In addition, eight laboratories will control the temperature to within ± 0.5 °C and four to within ± 0.1 °C.

Some of the current occupants include the Material Science and Technology Division with its ultra-high resolution transmission electron microscope (TEM) and a low-temperature magnetics laboratory; the Acoustics Division with its near-field scanning optical microscope (NSOM); and the Chemistry Division with its ultra-high vacuum, four-probe scanning tunneling microscope (STM) that is installed in one of the ultra-quiet laboratories and its atomic force microscopes (AFM) that are installed in one of the quiet laboratories.