The Washington Nanofabrication Lab at the University of Washington, used by researchers and businesses alike, plans to nearly double in size and increase its “clean room” space.
A University of Washington lab inhabiting much of the bottom floor of Fluke Hall is a picture of yellow-lit precision.
Workers in giant, white clean outfits resembling space suits, or maybe quarantine garb, control large metal machines under yellow light that makes the room act essentially like a big dark room. Huge machines are creating teeny tiny computer chips and sensors, some barely visible to the naked eye, used in electronics, medical devices and vehicles.
The lab is preparing to embark on an expansion project, growing from 7,000 to about 12,000 square feet and increasing the amount of “clean room” space the lab has for scientists. The UW Board of Regents has announced it will give up to $37 million for the project.
The Washington Nanofabrication Facility, taken over by the UW in 2011, is home to more than 140 scientists and engineers every month and is used by researchers and businesses alike. It is the closest and most affordable facility for dozens of startups in the region that need access to the expensive machines to build products and keep their businesses afloat.
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“A lot of the renovation is about yield-enhancing by making things cleaner,” said associate director Michael Khbeis. The idea is that many users will have more success with projects if the space has newer technology to keep harmful particles out of the air.
The small devices made in the lab go into phones, medical equipment and hundreds of devices used every day. The materials in the lab are sometimes smaller than the width of a human hair, so engineers take every precaution to make sure no harmful particles swirl around.
The UW has set up a system so businesses can pay a monthly or hourly fee to use the same equipment that university researchers also use.
The demand for the facility is evident just by looking at the lab. Huge crates with new machines line every hallway, but there is no room for more machines to be unpacked and put into use. Khbeis and lab director Karl Bohringer constantly receive requests to use the facilities and need more space to accommodate the interest.
Jevne Branden Micheau-Cunningham, owner of a company called Flexforge, is a regular user of the lab. Flexforge creates small circuit boards for the aerospace, automotive and medical-devices industries. Micheau-Cunningham uses the nanofabrication lab’s equipment, machines that would otherwise cost him between $250,000 and $2 million each to buy.
“It would be three or four levels beyond insane (to buy the equipment),” he said. “Other, smaller, privately held labs would not let you go in and fabricate yourself, so the cost would be different.”
At the UW, engineers can come in and make their own products with help and training from the lab’s employees and students. Or the lab’s employees can create the tiny devices for engineers who don’t have the specific expertise.
Daniel Ratner, an associate professor in the UW Bioengineering Department, is developing a small chip the size of a pinkie fingernail that can diagnose patients through samples of blood, plasma or urine. Ratner has the molecular-engineering background to create the technology, but not the manufacturing skills.
“We are able to lay out a sketch of the design, then submit the designs to the lab, as opposed to myself having to learn how to fabricate,” he said.
A third of the lab’s users are commercial companies, and revenue from the lab has tripled in the past four years, according to the university.
Construction and remodeling of the space will allow for more users and update the lab. The expansion will include adding clean-room space to the lab, which uses filters on the sides of the walls and in the ceiling to constantly filter the air.
“When you’re making things where a fleck of dust would destroy it, you need a clean space to stop particles from destroying what you’re working on,” Bohringer said. He uses the lab himself to develop an implant that can monitor the health of the eyes.
The expansion project breaks ground in November and is expected to take about 14 months, largely because the university is determined to keep portions of the lab open at all times.