It may look like some monstrous espresso machine, stripped of its shiny Italian casing, but the Sharp MBE (Molecular Beam Epitaxy) actually spits out Blu-ray lasers and other carefully grown components. Lurking at Sharp's Oxford, UK, research lab, Humans Invent reports, the MBE can carefully manipulate tiny clusters of atoms around in almost perfect vacuum, exploring new ways to craft next-gen electronics.
The main chamber itself uses a double purification system to make sure no contaminants get into whatever it is that Sharp is growing. First, a near-perfect vacuum is created, sucking out any airborne motes or other objects; then, liquid nitrogen is used to cool the outer surface of the chamber. When objects land on it, they instantly stick and freeze.
Substrate wafers are loaded inside and then manipulated into position using magnets on the outside; the various chemicals layered on top are kept in canisters around the outer edges, and released in controlled amounts using shutter doors. Because of the carefully maintained environment, they settle in a perfectly even layer, with the orientation decided by the atomic structure of the wafer itself: Sharp uses sapphire bases with various chemical toppings for Blu-ray lasers, for instance.
With the current MBE, Sharp can produce a couple of small trays of LEDs in a day. However, the production techniques being experimented with should eventually head to more mass-production friendly facilities, where bigger numbers can be catered for.