Neat and Nano – Part 1

by Michael Mullaney on May 3, 2011

Here’s a candid admission for a gray and cloudy Tuesday afternoon: I’m kind of a neat freak. I wash my hands probably more than necessary, don’t eat leftovers that are more than a day old, and I put as much stock in the “Five Second Rule” as I do the Tooth Fairy.

So a few weeks back, during an extended tour of the Rensselaer clean room, I felt right at home. This was in large part due to the excellent company: a mix of Rensselaer researchers, students, communications colleagues, and some friends from the local media. The room was also exceptionally – you guessed it – clean. As the photo above attests, full bunny suits are required for all who enter.

The lab boasts 6,000 square-feet of Class 100 clean space. This means the air in the room contains fewer than 100 particles per cubic foot. “Particle” is defined as anything larger than 0.5 micron in diameter.

So you’re probably wondering how this compares to any old normal, non-clean room. Clean Room Manager Dave King tells me that the air in a typical building contains 300,000 to 1 million particles per cubic foot. That’s a whole lot of stuff to breathe in with our N2 and O2.

These invisible particles are often (but not always) harmless to us. In the context of manufacturing – especially when you’re fabricating things that are only a few microns or nanometers long – these errant particles can spell big trouble. The more renegade particles floating about, the greater the likelihood that one is going to land on your prototype nanodevice or nanomaterial and skew the data you’re collecting. These particles can also impact the performance and careful calibration of the clean room’s $18 million in tools and equipment.

The clean room is a core facility on campus, and the staff work with students and professors from all walks of science and engineering. More than 50 different Rensselaer faculty members – from over 12 different academic departments – conduct work in the clean room. Everything from making next-gen LEDs and experimental computer chips to scrutinizing bone fragments. Additionally, about 175 students and post-docs use the clean room in their studies every semester. To boot, several small, local start-up companies do exploratory R&D in the clean room.

Tune back in to The Approach tomorrow and I’ll telll you more about our trip to the clean room, and show you some of the research taking place there.