CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When you enter the Charlotte Research Institute (CRI) on the Millennial Campus of UNC Charlotte from Hwy. 29, you are greeted by two massive and imposing brick structures featuring classical Georgian architecture complete with two-story columns. They are the epitome of traditional academic buildings.

But what’s going on inside these structures also epitomizes modern academia and the latest in cutting edge scientific research.

The $35 million 110,000-square-foot building housing the Center for Precision Metrology, as well as engineering labs and classrooms, has been operational for a year. The $24 million 90,000-square-foot building housing the Center for Optoelectronics and Optical Communications, classrooms and offices has been open for less then six months and is still being upfitted. On September 8, the two structures will be formally dedicated and then open to the campus community for tours and an open house.

Local Tech Wire got a sneak peak last week.

At the Optoelectronics Center, unless you wear a protective suit, you can’t get to the heart of this U-shaped building: the 3,000-square-foot “class 100” clean room. But you can see that it is awash in an odd-colored yellow light required for the experiments going on inside, such as measuring optical performances. In addition, there are seven large user facilities and 40 small labs. State-of-the-art equipment includes s lasers and electron microscopes, as well as an electro-beam lithography tool and a nano-imprint tool.

The structure also houses classroom space, as well as the CRI administrative offices. In October, the N.C. Bioelectronics Center will open its Charlotte regional office there. In about 18 months, upfitting will be completed on the shell space allocated for business partners.

“There are a number of companies interested, but it’s too early to execute any arrangements, “says Bob Wilhelm, CRI’s executive director.

Next door, at the Center for Precision Metrology, lab spaces look like the shops from your high school days or at any manufacturing facility or factory — except they are using equipment that measures and works in microns and nanometers. And they’re a lot cleaner. Still, the purpose is the same — improving manufacturing processes. A poster in one area quips, “An engineer is an individual who turns abstractions into malfunctions.”

Connected to the Center is a 5,000-square-foot building dedicated to motorsports and crash analysis for use by mechanical engineering students with a specialty in motorsports.

Both CRI buildings share features with lab facilities all over campus. They are built on isolated pads to minimize vibration, have access to ionized water, feature heating and cooling systems with increased capabilities, and use lots of hoods in enclosed areas for ventilation and to keep fumes out of the AC system.

CRI is still physically isolated from the rest of the UNCC campus, but that will soon be changing. When classes begin today, the university will introduce a campus-wide shuttle that will connect its far-flung areas. Wilhelm says plans are in the works to reduce the need for parking by making CRI more pedestrian- and bike-friendly. (About half of UNCC’s 21,000 students live within a mile of campus.)

“We want to make it convenient and safe,” he says.

Work will star next year on CRI’s third building, which will house the $35 million Bioinformatics Center. It will be constructed to meet standards to become a green-certified building.

Charlotte Research Institute: