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October 14th, 2007

Mysteries of making computer chips

What is a clean room?
Imagine you're standing in a confined space, with sheer white walls, floor and ceiling. Things look surreal, because everything is illuminated by special orange globes that cast everything in a strange, neon, Andy Warhol sort of colour scheme. Cabinets facing you have a sheer metal surface that acts as a perfect mirror. In the reflection, you see an outlandish space-man, wearing a silvery suit that covers his body from head to toe. That's you. Every breath echoes in your ears, like Darth Vader, inside your "bunny suit". You view the world through a transparent plexiglass face shield, and carry an oxygen tank on your belt. The suit's very important, as a single stray eyelash or pinch of dust could render a batch of processors useless, a mistake costing thousands and probably your job. You touch things only through special gloves, and bunny suit boots enclose your feet. Nearby, acid baths bubble and fizz ominously and a robotic arm busily works, humming as it slides reflective dinner-plate sized wafers of gleaming silicon in and out of the fulminating liquids, etching away copper and nanomaterials to create single track lines that are thinner than a human hair. The equipment and machines around you are so rarefied and expensive that they don't exist in any other profession or location in the world. They are totally unique, and completely dedicated to this task. Faintly, you can just hear the strains of "Play that funky music" jiving away in the background.


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