This story and photograph were first published in The Waterloo Region Record.
The heavy steel door inside Room 1018 of the Engineering 5 building at the University of Waterloo looks more like a bank vault than the entrance to a laboratory.
When you step inside, however, the outside world just melts away. The background noise of automobile traffic, air conditioners, birds and even the wind in the trees is silenced. This is the anechoic chamber at UW, a $15 million research lab and the quietest spot in Waterloo Region.
Noise and electromagnetic interference cannot exist in this space, thanks to the specially-designed walls and the spongy blue polyurethane spikes that line every inch of the room.
Anechoic means “free from echo,” and according to scientific instrumentation the room goes on for infinity and mimics the vacuum of space.
“This lab is almost like the space between stars. There’s no interference. No noise,” says Safieddin Safavi-Naeini, of the department of electrical and computer engineering. He is also the director of the lab, known as the Centre for Intelligent Antenna and Radio Systems.
Opened in 2013, the lab is helping researchers and private industry create the next generation of wireless communications devices, vehicular radar for driverless cars, satellite communications, nanosensors and other smart devices.
The chamber helps measure the electromagnetic fields radiated by objects as tiny as a human hair and as large as a two-ton truck, with the highest precision and over the widest range of frequencies possible in any academic facility in the world.
The electromagnetic spectrum includes all the various sources of electromagnetic radiation, including radio waves, microwaves, heat, visible light, ultraviolet light, X-rays and more. Researchers study and analyze electromagnetic fields and how those fields interact with surrounding objects.
They also hope the facility will help them learn more about terahertz, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum between radar and fibre optics that is not fully understood.
“It’s the most unique lab in Canada in terms of capabilities, and one of the most advanced in the world,” says Safavi-Naeini.
Researchers recently worked with General Motors to assess how new security features interact with the rest of the electronics in the vehicle. And to do that with as much accuracy as possible they brought the entire vehicle into the chamber.
“The problem is if you measure the antenna (apart from) the car, you get a completely different reading than when it’s on the car,” says Safavi-Naeini.
These tests are increasingly important as electronics become more advanced. Electromagnetic interference can change the way a device operates in the real world, and as companies move toward smart technology and autonomous vehicles, safety and responsiveness are top priorities.
“With so many electronic devices in cars, you have to measure the interference because it can change the operation of the car,” Safavi-Naeini says. “Any interference can cause problems.”
One of the walls of the lab can open like a garage door to move larger objects in and out. The chamber is one of the largest in the country (about 10 metres by 10 metres and about seven metres high) and can be reconfigured in many different ways.
Tucked in one of the corners is a yellow life-sized 3-D model of the human head. Named Sam, it is used to study the radiation emitted by cellphones.
“This is a model of the head that we fill with liquid to mimic your head and brain,” says Safavi-Naeini.
They must ensure the radiation falls within the safe SAR, or “specific absorption rate.”
BlackBerry has used the lab in the past to analyze its phones and contributed financially to the chamber’s construction as well.
Scan times vary depending on the size of the object, the size of the electromagnetic field it creates, and the level of detail the client or researcher needs. It can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, and that doesn’t include the detailed analysis of the data generated by the scan.
“Full scanning takes time and it scans all the points on a plane close to the object, like taking a picture of the object,” Safavi-Naeini says.
But all the advanced technology inside the lab would be for naught if researchers couldn’t block outside interference. To accomplish that, the entire room is shielded with slabs of ferrite, a metallic compound consisting of iron oxide and at least one other metal. Ferrite blocks outside electromagnetic fields that might skew the test.
It wasn’t cheap, either, as the shielding added about $1 million to the total cost of the chamber.
The spikes that line the wall to deaden noise range in size from just a few inches long to about 48 inches long, and they give the room an oddly creepy vibe — like a medieval torture chamber, or a trap from an “Indiana Jones” film.
Because of the unique properties of the room, special security features have been implemented to keep researchers safe.
The walls absorb all noise, so if you were injured and couldn’t get out on your own, there would be no way for anyone to hear your cries for help. And your cellphone would be useless if you tried to call for help, since the room blocks all incoming and outgoing signals.
A minimum of two people must be in the area whenever the lab is in use, and one must be outside the chamber in case of emergency. There is also a closed-circuit camera in one corner for added security.
“You’re completely isolated from the world,” says Aidin Taeb, a research associate at the lab.
The chamber can play tricks on your brain if you’re not careful. Because virtually all sound is absorbed by the walls, rumour has it you can actually hear your blood circulating through your veins after spending about two hours surrounded by complete silence.
“After every hour you have to go out and relax,” says Taeb.
“The quiet becomes heavy in your brain,” adds Safavi-Naeini.
The CIARS team regularly works with industry partners on a range of research projects. To learn more, check out https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-intelligent-antenna-and-radio-systems/ or email CIARS directly firstname.lastname@example.org