Cleanroom environments are being found in more diverse settings than ever before
By Jerry Kinkade, AIA, NCARB, and Josh Rownd, AIA, NCARB
Cleanrooms were once a specialty space relegated to corporate high-tech, computer-chip research and manufacturing. In recent years, however, cleanrooms have been built in university settings for teaching and basic research. The academic uses for cleanrooms have expanded from the traditional into biology and other life sciences. These sophisticated, multifunctional, and interdisciplinary cleanrooms provide critical solutions to modern research and education.
Cleanroom design has also responded to the scientific community’s need to collaborate. Large, ballroom-type cleanrooms and as-needed space assignments have replaced the traditional bay-and-chase design. Additionally, the interdisciplinary scientists using the space expect cleanrooms to provide not only a clean environment, but also vibration-free floors and benches, space free of electromagnetic fields, and temperature-controlled air. To effect the best guards against these elements, many large cleanrooms are being designed for below-grade locations.
Cleanrooms now take into consideration the need to protect the work within as well as the outside natural environment. This means designating the cleanroom as a barrier facility inside a containment facility, with all the required differences. These include different pressures, types of materials and spaces, and procedures, such as those pertaining to gowning.
These cleanrooms are, however, expensive to build and operate. To offset the high costs, public-private partnerships are growing exponentially. Oftentimes, public-private partnerships engage both public and private entities’ unique strengths, and direct joint endeavors toward achievements that optimize public needs, funds, and services. Furthermore, pairing higher education with corporate financing and resources helps overcome hardship posed by government cuts to science and research facilities. As a result, these combined efforts bear the fruit of technically advanced laboratories and cleanrooms.
Gearing up for higher education
Cleanrooms are likely the most expensive research spaces to build and operate, but ways exist to cut their costs. Some larger universities, for instance, opt to build technology parks on their campuses, where a private manufacturer might co-locate its facility and share resources with the university.
Public-private technology parks often incorporate “incubator” facilities that include pilot plants and mini-manufacturing research facilities. Used to iron out a manufacturing process, they produce small numbers of market-ready products without conducting large-scale manufacturing operations. Such facilities generally need to be highly flexible, since the manufactured products inevitably change. Good design will furnish a pilot plant with more utilities and types of power than a single product may require. However, this abundance of utilities will allow the flexibility to adapt to rapid changes from R&D to product development to pilot plants and back again. These utilities include clean air for heating and cooling, clean power, independent systems and in many cases back-up electrical generators and manifold gas farms.
The university’s faculty and students, as well as the corporation, benefit. Academic cleanrooms create opportunities for new business and train tomorrow’s engineers and scientists at both graduate and undergraduate levels. This sets up a revolving door of opportunity in that it provides a corporate funding stream to the university, thus enabling the university to offer its students real-world experience. This, in turn, makes the students more valuable, and over time will attract better students and faculty members to the institution.
At Purdue University’s Birck Nanotechnology Center, designers worked with the university early on in the project to define the school’s needs (see Fig. 1). Before long, user groups began to expand. Soon, every science and engineering department in the university laid claim to space in the new facility. The ballroom-type cleanrooms and laboratories thus resulted in a far more multifunctional space than originally planned. Ballroom cleanrooms, unlike bay and chase designs, are more flexible in that they allow the research to be broader in nature. When research is completed in one lab, for example, it may be used for another project. This makes the space more attractive to prospective researchers. As a result, space at the Birck Center is not permanently assigned.
Laboratories within the same facility can vary greatly. Three-quarters of the Birck labs have been designated for nanotechnology research. They are built as a positive-pressure barrier facility so as to protect research inside the room from outside contaminants. The remaining quarter of the labs are intended for bio research. They were built as a containment facility, which uses negative pressure to protect the outside world from indoor contaminants.
Not only is the pressurization different, but the finishes are different as well. For example, flooring varies between barrier and containment facilities. Nanotech labs require a raised floor where water cannot be introduced. On the other hand, biology labs require a seamless floor to facilitate cleaning and disinfection. Additionally, separate gowning areas are needed because the gowning process-including showers and sinks-differ between barrier and containment labs.
Budget constraints have led to the combining of teaching and research laboratories, which have historically been separate. Undergraduate teaching labs are designed for greater supervision, while graduate students use research-style labs. Teaching labs are generally less complicated. Undergraduate and graduate students may be able to use the same cleanroom to take advantage of economies of scale, but may need separate support areas. Examples of duplicated support space include instrument rooms, set-up, or storage rooms.
Considerations for sensitive environments
To protect sensitive tools and experiments, extreme measures must sometimes be designed into a cleanroom. This is especially true with electromagnetic interference (EMI) and vibration. Buildings are often surrounded by electrified systems-such as light rails, subways, trains-that produce electromagnetic fields (EMF). These EMF emissions result in potential interference to electrically sensitive equipment (e.g., computer monitors, diagnostic tools, electron microscopes).
Some magnetic fields can be shielded using ferromagnetic and/or thick, highly conductive materials. Examples include carbon steel, silicon-iron steel, nickel-iron, cobalt-iron, and copper or aluminum. Magnetic fields from static DC and AC light rail sources, however, are difficult to shield. They easily permeate nearly all materials including people, trees, buildings, concrete, and most metals. Here, designers mitigate damage from these fields by increasing the distance between the EMI source and susceptible electronics.
Vibration interference comes from a wide range of sources. Not only might passing vehicles (cars, buses, trains, etc.) cause vibrations, so also might a light wind against a building’s side. Below-grade labs aren’t immune; those forces on the building’s above-grade portion could transfer through its structural system. Even if a lab is completely below grade, the wind blowing against a tree, or even someone mowing the lawn, can vibrate the earth.
The most sophisticated labs, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Advanced Measurement Laboratory (AML) in Gaithersburg, Maryland, have done just this (see Fig. 2). The AML placed its most sensitive laboratories well below grade surrounded by the aboveground facilities, thus minimizing external negative impacts. Dr. Eric Steel of NIST’s Surface and Microanalysis Science division was quoted as saying, “Our new laboratory provides a dramatically better environment. It took us over three years to get a $1 million surface analysis instrument in our laboratory to meet its designed resolution. Within a week of moving into AML, the same instrument met spec.” (See Fig. 3)
Clean environments can be disturbed easily. Many facilities are therefore being designed with a visitor corridor alongside the lab’s exterior. This allows investors into the heart of the facility without disrupting research experiments or requiring visitors to gown up. Typically, such corridors have windows with a mechanism to close off the view when necessary.
For the greater good
Cleanroom use is expanding. No longer just for corporate, high-tech chip research and manufacturing, these highly sophisticated, interdisciplinary spaces provide critical solutions to today’s research and education. However, the enormous price tag required to build and staff these labs, combined with current economic constraints, such as rising interest and inflation rates, force universities to consider different ways to pursue their goals; the need to seek new paradigms in funding and design has never been greater. Public-private partnering, collaboration among diverse university departments, and/or multifunctional spaces can all help overcome these barriers. Without collaboration and flexibility, these spaces of innovation will not be built.
Jerry Kinkade, AIA, is a laboratory programmer/planner with HDR Architecture, Inc. in Omaha, Nebraska. Mr. Kinkade focuses his experience and expertise on programming and planning for higher-education research facilities and has led professional teams providing services for facility analyses, master planning, programming and planning for both academic and corporate high-tech facilities. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]
Josh Rownd, AIA, is a science and technology principal with HDR Architecture, Inc. in Omaha, Nebraska. With twenty years of experience in the industry, Mr. Rownd provides a unique blend of experience including projects for microelectronic, biomedical, medical device, pharmaceutical, R&D laboratories and cleanrooms. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]