The University of Minnesota Duluth's new chemistry building won't see classes until the fall, but its brighter, more open lab space is already making student scientists' work easier.

The 56,000-square-foot, $44.65 million Heikkila Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science (HCAMS) Building is a sharp contrast to UMD's existing Chemistry Building.

"Everything is completely updated," second-year graduate student Marcy Merritt said when comparing the two buildings. "We were working in a lab that had seen decades of previous scientists. Everything was used."

In contrast to the Chemistry Building's lab space in cramped, stuffy rooms, the HCAMS Building's labs are open-concept, with counters and cabinets instead of actual walls dividing students' workspace. The new labs also have more exits, designed with safety in mind.

The three-story HCAMS Building features 12 chemistry research labs, one advanced-materials lab, five instructional labs, 11 collaboration spaces, five graduate-student workrooms and 22 faculty offices. It connects to the School of Medicine Building via skywalk across University Drive.

About $29.8 million in funding came from the Minnesota Legislature as part of then-Gov. Mark Dayton's 2017 bonding bill. Another $14.9 million or so came from UMD and its donors, including Kurt and Beth Heikkila of Marine on St. Croix, Minn. Kurt Heikkila is a 1979 master's graduate who went on to found the Tundra Cos., based in the suburban Twin Cities area.

Groundbreaking took place in July 2017, and the first faculty began moving into the building in January.

On Wednesday, Merritt was synthesizing chemicals for potential use in OLED technology - organic light-emitting diodes, used in the latest television, computer and smartphone screens and known for their rich colors and contrast.

She said the new lab's open plan not only makes it easier to work, with more fume hoods that help ventilate the space, but it also helps her keep track of the undergrad students she oversees.

Steve Berry, chair of UMD's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said the open concept encourages communication.

"There's more obvious communication between the students, sharing of ideas and also maybe sharing of equipment to allow for more collaboration," Berry said.

The HCAMS Building also is more energy-efficient, being Minnesota B3-certified to meet sustainability goals. It features LED lighting that turns off when people aren't present, as well as rooftop solar power arrays and stormwater filtering.

The existing Chemistry Building opened in 1949, with subsequent phases completed by 1951. It is the oldest building on campus, being the first on UMD's new "upper" campus at the time. Until 1973 it was known as the Science Building, hosting not just the school's chemistry program but also physics, mathematics and biology.

In addition to classrooms and lab space being too small for current needs, the building also was plagued with heating and ventilation issues.

"The building is warm in the winter, but in the summer it stays warm also," Berry said. "So it's very humid and moist, and that makes doing chemistry a challenge when you have all that moisture."

The building also has inconsistent power, with fluctuations being common, Berry said, as well as water leaks.

"With a building this old, water pipes will just suddenly break, and so we're always repairing something," Berry said, noting that one lab in the building experienced significant flooding and damage over winter break.

The new HCAMS Building is a much safer environment, Berry said, with modern amenities and modern air handling.

Plans are still coming together for the old Chemistry Building's future.

"It's still a structurally sound building, (so) one plan is to have more interactive classrooms," Berry said. "We can open up some of these labs and have flat classrooms that facilitate student interaction and learning."

Berry said he believed the building would stay in the school's Swenson College of Science and Engineering, and that some of the lab space could still be used for engineering. However, Lynne Williams, UMD's director of marketing and public relations, said future plans for the building would be up to campus administration.

The University of Minnesota system has asked the Minnesota Legislature for money to renovate the Chemistry Building, which has an estimated $8 million price tag, Williams said.

Gov. Tim Walz recommended about $117.7 million in his 2019 bonding bill for preservation of buildings on University of Minnesota campuses statewide. His proposal also fully funds the $4.3 million renovations to UMD's A.B. Anderson Hall.

It remains to be seen whether the governor's bonding bill will pass this year, however. Senate Republicans oppose the package and have enough votes to block the bill in its current form.

Typically, UMD gets about 8.5 percent of the bonding money allocated to the University of Minnesota system, so if the system received $100 million, for instance, the Chemistry Building renovations would be paid for.

If UMD doesn't receive that money, Williams said the building would stay mostly vacant, and "we'll try again next year."