Thursday, March 26, 2020

Using Semiconductor Manufacturing Technique to Combat Covid-19

Containing the Covid-19 virus has been an unexpected challenge. Many business and retail stores are closing or reducing hours in an attempt to halt the spread of the illness. In particular, local restaurants and fast food chains are grappling with losses. The food service industry is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 as the virus can be easily propagated during food preparation and service/delivery to customers. Given this epidemic, we might utilize already established semiconductor industry technique to address and minimize this concern.

Keeping Products Clean and Isolated During Transport

Semiconductor manufacturing systems destined for a clean room wafer fab are assembled in a clean environment and specially wrapped prior to shipment. Typically systems are triple wrapped in a protective plastic covers. After arrival and offloading at the wafer fab, the first protective layer is removed and discarded along with any dust contaminants collected during shipping. The system is moved again to a prep and clean area where the second protective layer is removed. Finally after positioning in the wafer fab, the third protective layer is removed from the system. This procedure ensures the maintenance of a clean environment in the wafer fab and the particle integrity of the process tool.

Food Service Product Cleanliness During Transport/Delivery

Most consumer products are commonly wrapped or otherwise packaged in containers of some sort. In combating the Covid-19 virus, the concept of triple wrapping might be transferred to the food service industry. Bulk lot food transport and fast food delivery to customers could benefit from this concept. Food products would remain isolated/protected during transport with the final protective layer removed by the customer. Similarly this concept can be implemented for pharmaceuticals, medications and other consumer products.

Multi-layer plastic packaging might also address other concerns. The shelf life for consumer products in plastic packaging varies. The plastic bottles used for water and soft drink packaging provide an approximate one year shelf life. Tested with a helium mass spectrometer most plastics have an equivalent air leak rate approximating 1x10-6 standard cc/sec. (about one year). To be safe I dispose of bottled drinks with packaging dates exceeding one year. Plastic bottles wrapped in plastic might provide another layer of protection against exposure to hazardous materials. Reuse of the very thin plastic bags we encounter in retail and grocery stores should be avoided. Get a new one.

Larger Scale Decontamination/Clean Room Procedures

The semiconductor industry is unique in that computer chips are manufactured in an ultra- clean environment. A single microscopic speck of dust can contaminate and ruin a microprocessor or memory chip. To ensure the wafer fab (the computer chip factory) remains ultra clean, workers in the fab are dressed in hooded clean room suits. Covered head to toe, protective face masks and gloves also prevent dust particles from reaching process tools and product devices. Entering a wafer fab approximates the decontamination procedure seen in the movie “The Andromeda Strain”. After donning a clean room suit (a bunny suit) workers enter a secure, enclosed load locked entrance. After the entrance door locks behind them, bunny suited workers are particle decontaminated with a cluster of filtered high pressure air jets (an air shower) which spray them to remove clinging dust particles and debris. During this process workers rotate themselves in the air shower to expose all of their suited surface area for effective cleaning while a particle counter in the load lock measures the dust particle count per cubic foot. When the particle count is acceptable, workers can enter the wafer fab through the load lock exit door. If the particle spec is not met you can’t get in. The entrance to the fab remains locked, and the air shower cycle repeats until the particle count is acceptable. Only then will the fab entrance open. If this seems a bit extreme take heart in the knowledge that the isolation imposed by the bunny suit is offset by the thought of air showering with a friend.

A similar clean room protocol might be utilized for food service/other industries if the public health threat of viral contamination persists. Although viral organisms are very small (some of them only angstroms in size) conventional clean room procedures can greatly reduce their propagation by using effective isolation and packaging techniques during manufacturing and transport.

Kudos to Intel Corporation for donating clean room suits during the current Covid-19 epidemic. It might be possible to adapt other semiconductor resources and technique in the fight against the current epidemic.

Be safe everyone.  See my video update below.

Regards to all,
Thomas D. Jay

Semiconductor Industry Consultant
Thomas D. Jay YouTube Channel

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Disclosure: I currently own shares of Intel. I purchased these shares prior to the Covid-19 epidemic and am invested for the long term. 

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