Keeping research clean

Innovative cleanroom use helps cut time, money from product development cycles

By Sarah Fister Gale

The time it takes to transform a brilliant idea into a marketable product determines a company’s profitability, which means managers in every industry are searching for ways to cut time and money from their product development timelines. One of the many solutions they’ve hit upon is putting cleanroom facilities inside and next to research labs, giving scientists the opportunity to create, test and tweak in a clean environment-bringing them ever closer to their end goal of a finished product.

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This shift in the use of cleanrooms is part of a transition from basic research to more specific scientific applications, says Tom Mistretta, senior laboratory planner for CUH2A in Princeton, NJ. “It’s no longer enough for scientists to say ‘we understand how a new process works.’ Now they have to be focused on how that process can be applied to commercial products.”

It also means that scientists from multiple disciplines need facilities where they can work simultaneously on joint projects, combining their unique research and sciences together into finished products, such as biomedical or bionanotechnology devices.

“Scientific research is becoming more interdisciplinary, which means lab spaces need to accommodate multiple users,” Mistretta says.

The trend toward multidisciplinary cleanrooms for research is translating into new opportunities for cleanroom designers and equipment manufacturers, who are seeing a greater demand for both portable and permanent cleanroom spaces in university labs, research firms, pharmaceutical development houses-anywhere that a product is being created that may someday require the controlled atmosphere of a cleanroom environment.

“When researchers are focused on the commercial viability of their outcomes, they need an environment that is akin to a production facility [in which] to do their work,” says Pete Daniele, president of LM Air Technology, in Rahway, NJ. “They have to ensure a clean environment to be sure their results aren’t tainted.”

Birck Center sits on the cutting edge

No one understands this need better than John Weaver, facility manager at the Birck Nanotechnology Center. This state-of-the-art, 187,000-square-foot scientific research facility at Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN) was designed specifically to bring experts from different disciplines together under one roof where they can collaborate, share ideas, and transform the principles of nanotech design into marketable products and solutions for real-world problems.

“We are just beginning to explore nanotech research and development and we don’t know where it’s going to take us,” Weaver says, noting that the multidisciplinary design of the Birck Center, which includes shared lab and cleanroom spaces, increases opportunities for interaction among all of the disciplines. “It enables research that will speed our understanding of nanotechnology.”

Scientists, engineers, academics and administrators from academia, government and industry are invited to take advantage of the $58-million-dollar complex, which features more than 22,000 square feet of laboratory space, including special low-vibration rooms for nanostructures research, with temperature control to less than 0.1°C. Other laboratories in the building are specialized for nanophotonics, crystal growth, bionanotechnology, molecular electronics, MEMS and NEMS, surface analysis, SEM/TEM, electrical characterization, RF systems, instruction and training, and precision micromachining.

At the center of the facility is a state-of-the-art, 25,000-square-foot, Class 10-100-1,000 (ISO 3-4-5) nanofabrication cleanroom, part of which is configured as a biomolecular cleanroom with a biological-pharmaceutical-grade environment needed for work with pathogen-detecting biochips and other biological nanotechnology.

The cleanroom has a bay-and-chase layout, which is less common than a ballroom configuration, because the initial and operation costs were much lower, Weaver says. “The conditioned air in the cleanroom returns through the chase, so the chase air is free,” he explains. Each of the 13 cleanroom spaces, which open off of the central spine, are configured to ISO 3, 4, or 5. The cleanroom space features sheet-vinyl flooring, coved corners, pharmaceutical-grade floors, walls and ceilings, and a Hunt Air fan wall system. “The fan wall is very helpful to us because the fans are all man-liftable and pop in and out so we don’t need devices to lift or replace them,” Weaver says. The wall has six fans per unit, but five can run the system effectively, creating a cushion for equipment failure. “We keep a couple of fans on a shelf for back up.”

Figure 1. A sterile pass-through chamber, such as the one shown here, allows researchers to pass materials or work without having to leave their cleanroom space and regown. This pass-through features continuous-seam welds with coved corners that eliminate particle traps and simplify cleaning. Courtesy of Terra Universal.
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Each space has a separate entry, gowning areas and isolated airflow, and there are sterile pass-through chambers and glove boxes between the rooms where researchers from either side can pass materials or work without having to leave their cleanroom space and regown (see Fig. 1).

It is the first such blended cleanroom design and creates unique opportunities for scientists to work simultaneously in separate, specialized cleanrooms or to move back and forth between cleanroom spaces and lab spaces.

“We look at the cleanroom more for enabling purposes,” says Weaver. “Some people don’t believe you need cleanrooms in a research setting, but when it comes to airborne molecular contamination, you have to have a clean environment so as not to confound your research or produce misleading or clouded results.”

The cleanroom space also includes state-of-the-art equipment for research, including a Leica Vector Beam photolithography system to create nanoscale patterns on wafers with an electron beam; an optical pattern generator, donated by Raytheon Co., that creates photo masks for patterning silicon wafers; and six furnaces, donated by LSI Logic Corp., that achieve temperatures of up to 1,200°C to alter the electrical characteristics, or conductivity, in specific areas of the silicon wafer.

The hope is that by creating spaces where scientists can collaborate using this cutting edge facility and equipment they will hasten advances in nanotech research, Weaver says. It’s already seen some success toward this end in a project called “Lab on a Chip,” a Listeria monocytogenes bacteria detection device that was one of the first projects conducted in the Birck Center cleanroom. The biochip combines bioMEMS and bionanotechnology elements to create a micro-integrated system that can be used to detect the dangerous and deadly bacteria in food-processing operations.

Because the cleanroom spaces at the Birck Center are linked, the project team was able to create the MEMS elements in the semiconductor fab then pass the device through an isolated air-locked chamber to the biocleanroom, where they added the active biological species material to the chip without ever breaking the clean environment.

“Before we had the Birck Center, this research was done in three different buildings,” says Rachid Bashir, a nanobiologist at Purdue who is working on the Lab on a Chip project. “This building is a dramatic improvement, not just because it speeds things up, but because it enhances our understanding.”

From universities to machine shops

While the Birck Center is on the leading edge of high-tech cleanrooms, LM Air has been accommodating a growing demand for the design and installation of cleanroom spaces from universities and research centers, including a 1,100-square-foot hardwall cleanroom for Rutgers University (Piscataway, NJ). This recirculating cleanroom project included an epoxy floor, separate gown room, electrical, lighting, HEPA-filtered modules and the internal cleanroom equipment (see Fig. 2). It was a turnkey application that included three separate rooms, one of which had clear, acrylic wall panels (see Fig. 3).

Figure 2. LM Air handled the design and installation of a 1,100-square-foot hardwall cleanroom for Rutgers University. Courtesy of LM Air Technology.
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The company has completed similar projects for a number of universities, including the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Maryland (College Park, MD), and the University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ).

Figure 3. This turnkey project included three separate rooms, one of which had clear, acrylic wall panels. Courtesy of LM Air Technology.
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LM Air has also seen demand for cleanrooms growing in less conventional cleanroom industries. For example, it recently installed a 16-foot x 10-foot, soft-sided, portable cleanroom in the warehouse of a Bayer aspirin facility to be used as a quality control booth where drums of product are dropped in, sampled, and removed. It completed a similar project in the machine shop of a steel foundry, creating a clean space where facility operators could manufacture steel wire (see Fig. 4).

Figure 4. There’s a growing demand for cleanrooms in less conventional cleanroom industries, including this project in the machine shop of a steel foundry. The goal was to create a clean space where facility operators could manufacture steel wire. Courtesy of LM Air Technology.
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“We are seeing a lot more broad-based need for cleanrooms in every industry,” Daniele says.

That demand will only increase as companies continue to try to short circuit the path to product development. “We are seeing the number of cleanrooms in labs growing in every industry,” Mistretta says. “If you can get to the pilot level in the lab, you can cut two years from your development cycle. Cleanrooms are a part of that.”

Shortening the time to market is only one of the benefits of having a cleanroom in the research lab. It also enables scientists to make immediate adjustments in response to changing needs or environmental issues; or to customize products, such as gene therapies in hospitals for patients on the spot. “When you have cleanrooms in the facility, there is much more immediate interaction between developers and users,” he says.

Cleanrooms that fit like a mitten

Designing these kinds of multidisciplinary research-based cleanrooms and labs is far different from building conventional cleanrooms that are planned for specific tasks, Mistretta points out. “They require more flexible spaces that can accommodate a greater variety of activities, and usually include portable equipment and furniture, and increased power availability and data connections to servers or local networks so that operators can download data off equipment onto their systems and add or change out equipment as necessary.”

Mistretta notes that, although clients in some industries still want cleanrooms that fit like a glove (sleek, carefully laid out, and designed for very specific uses), more often, new facility operators are prioritizing open spaces with room to expand. They need flexibility so they can change the way the space functions, but they don’t have the budgets to build huge cleanrooms that can accommodate any and all potential future tasks.

Mistretta likens these spaces to mittens: “They fit around your basic need, but leave you room to ‘make a fist’ or extend out.”

While not huge, these cleanrooms tend to be more open, with air handling systems that are designed to increase capacity or air quality as changes arise. “When making design decisions for these types of spaces, clients need ask themselves: Will I need to add fume hoods in the future? Do I have enough air circulation? Enough fan filter unit capacity? Enough duct work?” Mistretta says. “Open lab designs are more forgiving in these respects.”

Making the right choices to accommodate future flexibility with current costs isn’t easy he says. “Finding harmony between budget and what you want to do with the space is the magic of cleanroom design. That’s what we do.”

Full of hot air

When designing multidisciplinary spaces that must accommodate a host of different users and uses, operators must also factor rising fuel costs into their design decisions.

“The increasing amount of equipment and PCs in cleanroom spaces is generating a lot of heat, and the air conditioning system needs to accommodate that,” says Mistretta. “We are seeing more ventilation in these rooms than we saw 20 years ago.”

The problem, he says, is that venting all of the hot air out of the building is a waste of money, especially with soaring heating costs. “You don’t want to exhaust cleanroom air that you’ve conditioned to a high level of purity.”

This has caused a growing interest in heat exchange systems, which capture exhausted heat on heat wheels, plates, or pipes, and reuse it to heat incoming air to the facility. In some states, facilities can even receive fuel credits for their heat recovery systems to further offset energy costs.

“You have to look at these solutions carefully, however,” warns Michael Buckwalter, publications director for Terra Universal (Fullerton, CA), noting that operations must avoid reusing any air contaminated with fumes or toxic chemicals from the processing operation.

Along with heat recovery systems Mistretta has seen a lot of operations building larger equipment into the walls from the outside, so that heat and noise can be exhausted into the service corridors where the air is not as conditioned. “It’s another way to get the undesirable effects outside the room, and it creates more space inside the room.”

Besides fuel costs, operators are tightening their exhaust systems in response to increases in air quality and environmental safety standards relating to environmental issues from cleanroom operations.

One of the most well-known standards in this arena is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating program for new construction and retrofit projects from the U.S. Green Building Council, a coalition of leaders across the building industry. The LEED rating system is a nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings, assessing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.

Some cleanroom equipment manufactur-ers are also pursuing green standard status, particularly by seeking Building Green certification for their products, which allows them to be listed in the GreenSpec product information service listing of environmentally preferable building products. The directory is available to architects and engineers searching for products to attain LEED credits for their building designs.

“Nationally the response has not been as quick as it should be,” says Mistretta, but he is optimistic that more communities will adopt tighter regulations for air quality as programs like LEED gain acceptance nationwide. “Every time you cross one hurdle, you wonder what you can do next to make it better, safer, or cheaper.”

Cleanroom in a box

For many facilities, ‘cheaper’ is a significant requirement. Tightened standards, increased quality control demands, and speed to market are pushing many industries to upgrade facilities, adding cleanrooms where they weren’t previously necessary or increasing the cleanliness of the existing environment, says Terra Universal’s Buckwalter. However, permanent cleanroom spaces don’t always make sense. For those facilities that have limited space and tight budgets, or that handle low-run or limited-lifespan products, portable cleanrooms are less expensive and more flexible (see Fig. 5).

Figure 5. For facilities that have limited space and tight budgets, or that handle low-run or limited-lifespan products, portable cleanrooms-such as the BioSafe Cleanroom shown here-are less expensive and more flexible. Courtesy of Terra Unviersal.
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While in the past choosing modular spaces wasn’t always feasible for certain industries, recent advances in hardwall modular cleanroom spaces are making portable rooms a viable economical option even for the most rigorous cleanroom operations requiring increased durability.

Buckwalter says that many of Terra’s clients are demanding more features from modular spaces, such as coved corners, walls and ceilings; microbial inhibitors for easier cleaning and sterilizing; aseptic and conditioning pass-through chambers; and a lot more stainless steel.

“Stainless-steel rooms meet requirements that plastic rooms just can’t,” he says. “They stand up to harsh disinfectants and feature rounded corners and smooth surfaces that are faster and easier to clean.”

Figure 6. The BioSafe cleanroom in stainless steel features smooth surfaces, inside and out, that can tolerate standard disinfectants and sterilization procedures and can also be specified with antimicrobial surface coatings. Shown with pass-through chambers and A/C modules. Courtesy of Terra Universal.
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To accommodate these requests, Terra Universal now offers an all-steel BioSafe Cleanroom, featuring smooth surfaces, inside and out, that can tolerate standard disinfectants and sterilization procedures and can also be specified with antimicrobial surface coatings (see Fig. 6).

“The BioSafe Cleanroom has a rigid, self-supporting structure without a separate frame or external bracing-a key advantage over other designs that require special permitting and contractor installation,” Buckwalter says.

The ceiling grid of the BioSafe room features bays for installation of HEPA or ULPA filter/fan units and lights, or optional UV sterilization and fluorescence detection modules. The rooms accommodate the full range of cleanroom configuration options, including air conditioning, dehumidification modules, and ventilation equipment. Double-wall panels create an installation zone for electrical conduit, gas and vacuum service lines, which can be insulated to optimize thermal stability and reduce energy costs.

He estimates that the portable room costs 10 times less than a fixed installation, and says that it can be built to spec and operational in two months. “BioSafe is a lot more economical than a fixed cleanroom and clients don’t have to sacrifice ruggedness.”

Terra’s hardwall modular system is currently being used in a revolutionary project that could become a model for companies seeking ways to improve quality control over projects outsourced overseas. The project involves a company that is developing a cancer therapy, which needs to be manufactured in a cleanroom comprising four suites, each requiring unique air pressure differentials and cleanroom ratings. To ensure the high-est quality control standards at the franchised offshore manufacturing sites, it created a model manufacturing environment using Terra’s BioSafe Cleanroom, ensuring that each operation use the exact same equipment, environment and specifications. “By using the model cleanroom, the company is able to control the production environment based on tested designs and processes,” Buckwalter explains. “It enables them to have all the advantages of a fixed room, without the cost.”

Whether a cleanroom is part of a state-of-the-art facility or is a lean, portable space designed for efficiency and cost effectiveness, fuel costs and environmental issues will continue to be a priority concern as operators look for ways to shave time and money from their product development process while giving their developers the space and tools they need to create the “next best thing.”

“When you work at a company, you share a single mission-to be successful,” Mistretta says. “We’re seeing our clients making certain investments in their infrastructure and their processes to accommodate that.”


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