Tho Tran is a senior process development engineer at Hewlett Packard Labs. But she calls herself a cook. A baker to be precise. That is primarily because she bakes bread at home. But in the class 10 cleanroom, known informally as "the kitchen," she’s still the chef.
Hewlett Packard Labs has three clean rooms: A multi-station production room shared with HP, Inc., called “the kitchen,” a second, smaller room shared with Labs-spinoff startup Leia, and the “stepper room” where circuit patterns are laid down on silicon wafers, also shared with Leia. Despite the centrality of these rooms to Labs’ mission, not many people really know what happens there. This photo essay seeks to remedy that.
If Tho is the cook, then cleanroom engineer Carl Chow is the maître d'hôtel, and photonics research engineer Thomas Van Vaerenbergh is the valued diner with a standing table. They accompanied technical communicator and photographer Rebecca Lewington and I into the sweltering, roaring forge where the dishes get cooked and assembled.
So put on your weird plastic onesie, strap on your oversize lab booties, don your mask, drag your cowl over your head, and start regretting the decisions you’ve made that brought you here. I mean, enter the clean room.
Class 10 clean rooms allow only 10 particles greater than 0.5micrometers in size per cubic foot of air. For comparison, an average human hair is 50micrometers in diameter. Typical air has 10,000 times more particles than a class 10 cleanroom. Just one particle could render a microchip useless.
In addition to being clean, these rooms are also loud, thanks to the outflow system, and hot, due to the machinery and products needing a 70 degree temperature to be happy, and yellow, so the harsh white light doesn’t alter the final products.
Although optics are what Tho does for Thomas, there are many other projects and products going through, and coming out of, the clean rooms. But we’ll stick with Tho and her “recipes” for a photonic wafer and the chips that result. (The processes and their ingredients really are called recipes by the engineers.)