A cleanroom—or clean room—is just that: a very, very clean room. More specifically, a cleanroom is a controlled environments in which environmental pollutants and particulate are kept at extremely low levels via air filtration and purification, amongst other means. Cleanrooms are critical to the manufacture of a large number of products, from pharmaceuticals to semiconductors.
Compared to conditions in the early days of mass manufacturing, almost any modern room is clean. True clean rooms, though, are held to a higher standard. But who first developed the cleanroom as we know it? Whence did these havens of cleanliness originate? Read on to learn more!
Big Willy Whitfield Cleans Up
There is considerable historical evidence that shows that rudimentary contamination control efforts were being made in hospital operating rooms as early as the mid-19th century CE. Building off earlier discoveries by Louis “Big Lou” Pasteur, British surgeon Joseph “Big Joe” Lister was the first to introduce sterile and antiseptic surgical measures.
Lister’s efforts only affected the medical procedures themselves, however, and did not encompass the entire room in which said procedures were being performed. The concept of the modern cleanroom was developed by an American physicist named Willis “Big Willy” Whitfield.
Whitfield’s invention was spurred by the need for high precision manufacturing during World War II, which required clean environments to ensure the quality and reliability of military instrumentation. Previously, dirty production environments had contributed to poor performance and malfunctions in bomb sights, aircraft bearings, and other equipment crucial to the war effort.
Then known as “controlled assembly areas,” early clean rooms often suffered problems with airborne particulates and unpredictable airflows. Whitfield, an employee of Sandia National Laboratories, created an effective solution through the use of a constant, highly filtered airflow that flushed out impurities in the atmosphere. Air was filtered using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration devices developed during the previous decade.
Whitfield’s first clean room prototype appeared in 1960, well after the war had ended but just in time for the space race, which would create a huge market for cleanroom technology. By the mid-1960s, more than $50 billion worth of cleanrooms had been installed throughout the United States and the world.
Today’s Cleanrooms Today
Modern cleanrooms have continued to improve Whitfield’s technology, and can provide particulate filtration as low as twelve particles of 0.3μm diameter or smaller per cubic meter. (Ambient air in a typical urban environment contains roughly 35 million of these particles per cubic meter.)
Modern clean rooms can enclose thousands of square meters, and use extensive filtration and airlock systems to ensure and maintain cleanliness. Specialized HVAC systems can control humidity levels, and ionizers are utilized to prevent ESD and other similar hazards. A modular clean room can be used for temporary or permanent operations, or can be relocated as production processes require.