The cleanest room in Canada?

Dust spells doom in UCalgary’s Microsystems Hub, a high-tech machine shop for very, very small technology.

By Michael Platt
Schulich School of Engineering
October 11, 2017


Where you see only dust, Colin Dalton sees looming disaster.

That’s what happens when you’re in charge of one of Canada’s cleanest rooms, where engineers, researchers and scientists work on a scale where a single speck of stray lint looks like a boulder — and it may as well be, for the potential damage it might cause.

“A single particle of dust can be devastating at this level,” explains Dalton, engineering professor and facility manager at the Microsystems Hub in the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary.

“Dust particles and skin flakes are like an asteroid hitting a planet, because they are enormous compared to the things we are making.”

What they are making include sensors, micro-electrical-mechanical devices, and in Dalton’s case, neurochips capable of bonding with living brain cells, offering insight into the origins of neurological diseases and conditions such as epilepsy.


The 3,000-sq.-ft. Microsystems Hub is used by the entire university for research and experimentation.
The 3,000-sq.-ft. Microsystems Hub is used by the entire university for research and experimentation.

Best described as “a high-tech machine shop for micro- and nano-scale technology fabrication,” the Microsystems Hub has received support from Alberta Innovates, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

It contains more than $8 million in specialized equipment, from an ion etcher to a flip-chip bonder, for work on a level that’s 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Used for micro/nanotechnology prototyping by academia and industry, the entire lab is built around hard metal and plastic surfaces, as well as an air pressure and cleaning system that scrubs the air three times per hour.

Entering the place means donning protective suits — not to guard the person, but to prevent outside contaminants from entering the cleanroom, one of only two such open-access facilities in Alberta, and about 20 in the country.

Though part of the Schulich School, the 3,000-sq.-ft. hub  is also a place that’s used by the entire university for research and experimentation, when near-complete cleanliness is vital.

How clean? Dalton like to use sunbeams as a reference point, because almost everyone can relate to seeing a galaxy of dust floating through a shaft of sunlight.

In an average home, that galaxy of floating jetsam adds up to about 300,000 particles of dust per cubic metre — while in the Microsystems Hub, with its battery of fans and hepa filters, the number is reduced to 1,000 particles per cubic metre, and in one area, just 100 particles per cubic metre.

“That same sun beam would appear virtually empty in here,” says Dalton.



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