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Welcome to dreamland

Tony Eastham shows off his new facilities

By Matin Durrani

I wrote yesterday about whether the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia will attract researchers to the new venture.

One thing is clear: the facilities are second to none.

Tony Eastham, KAUST’s lab director, greeted me as I stepped off the media bus into the melting heat. First stop was the visualization “cave” — basically a white, walk-in room onto which colour images are beamed by four cinema-quality projectors. Put on a pair of goggles and the cave lets you see images of, say, protein molecules to look for possible binding sites or to view 3D fly-through of archaeological sites. Although such rooms exist elsewhere, this has apparently a better resolution than any other; it can even play sound, should you wish.

As we headed down to the nanotech facilities, Eastham, who used to be based at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told me that KAUST has a whopping $1.5bn over its first five years for lab equipment. Tasty.

In one of the downstairs labs a total of 10 NMR spectrometers stood sentry, all unused so far. Then it was through a side door and down a corridor with tall doors leading off. Eastham opened one to reveal a state-of-the art electron microscope and then a second and then a third. Each boasted another microscope – five TEMs and five SEMs in all, each barely out of its packaging. Another room had a suite of confocal and Raman microscopes.

And so into the clean rooms – a total of 2000 square metres in all. All spotless so far. “KAUST,” claimed Eastham, “is the most exciting thing happening in academia anywhere in the world.”

Whether all the new toys can be used for anything useful, however, remains to be seen.

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