Willis Whitfield, inventor of modern-day laminar-flow clean room, passes away

Cleanroom inventor Willis Whitfield, who passed away this week at age 92, lived long enough to see his creation mark its 50th anniversary. Willis, who retired from Sandia in 1984, pauses here during a tour of a cleanroom in Sandia’s microsystems fabrication facility.  (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Heather Clark

When Willis Whitfield invented the laminar-flow cleanroom 50 years ago, researchers and industrialists didn’t believe it at first. But within a few short years, $50 billion worth of laminar-flow cleanrooms were being built worldwide and the invention is still in use today.

The retired Sandia physicist, dubbed “Mr. Clean” by TIME Magazine at the time, passed away this week at age 92.

The travel, scientific presentations, and accolades didn’t change the unassuming scientist, who was always modest about the invention that revolutionized manufacturing in electronics and pharmaceuticals, made hospital operating rooms safer, and helped further space exploration.

Sandia President and Labs Director Paul Hommert remembered Willis as a Sandia pioneer.

“He represented the very best of Sandia,” Paul says. “An exemplary researcher, a physicist who became an engineer’s engineer, Willis lived in that sweet spot where the best technical work is always done, at the intersection of skill, experience, training, and intuition. His breakthrough concept for a new kind of clean room, orders of magnitude more effective than anything else available in the early 1960s, came at just the right time to usher in a new era of electronics, health care, scientific research, and space exploration. His impact was immense; even immeasurable. We are proud to have called him a fellow Sandian, and we join with his family to mourn his passing.”

Willis, the son of Texas cotton farmers who learned to do for themselves by fixing their own equipment, was in the Navy working on radar and then worked with rocket propellants out East before coming to work at Sandia, his son, Jim Whitfield, says. By the time he came to Sandia in 1954, his motivation set the stage for the invention because he felt like he was behind his co-workers and needed to do something catch up, he says.

In 1959, Willis was asked to solve a manufacturing problem for Sandia, so he invented the laminar-flow cleanroom, which, with slight modifications, is the industry standard today.

“He built it, found out no one had done it that way before, and said, ‘I don’t understand why [no one had invented it]. It’s so simple,’” recalls Jim Whitfield, who was a young child at the time. “I heard someone ask him how long did it take him to think of that idea and he said, ‘Five minutes; I just did the obvious thing.’”

Shortly after the invention was publicized, Jim Whitfield recalls his father coming home and telling his mother he got a “raisin.”

Puzzled about her joyful reaction about a food found in the family pantry, the boy then saw his dad’s appearance on a television news program and “at that point, I knew something was very different about that raisin.”

But a higher salary was a small part of the story. Jim Whitfield recalls practically living in airports while he father flew all over the country presenting his inventions at conferences and to companies that wanted to use the technology.

Solving a problem

In 1959, nuclear weapons components — mainly mechanical switching parts — were becoming smaller and microscopic dust particles were preventing manufacturers from achieving the quality Sandia needed, so Willis’ supervisors asked his group to find a solution, Sandia historian Rebecca Ullrich (9532) says.

While Willis might have come up with the idea quickly, months of research and talking with people led up to that moment of discovery, Rebecca says.

Willis discovered the practice at the time was to tightly seal cleanrooms, wear protective clothing, and vacuum often. Still, the airflow was turbulent in existing cleanrooms and particles introduced were not removed. These measures didn’t create the necessary conditions for close-tolerance manufacturing, she says.

Rebecca says Willis looked at blowers, vents, grading, and the cost per square foot to build his invention, so that it would be something people could afford.

By the end of 1960, Willis had his initial drawings for a 10-by-6 cleanroom. His solution was to constantly flush out the room with highly filtered air. In that first model, Willis designed a workbench along one wall. Clean air entered the room from a bank of filters that were 99.97 percent efficient in removing particles larger than 0.3 microns. For example, cigarette smoke blown in one side comes out the other as clean air, according to a 1962 Lab News article.

The air was circulated in the room at a rate of 4,000 cubic feet or about 10 changes of air per minute, an amount of air movement barely perceptible to the workers inside. The linear speed of air was slightly more than 1 mph, about the same as that felt walking through a still room, according to the article.

In a later modification, the air was passed down over the work area instead of across, getting an assist from gravity in carrying troublesome particles into the floor, which was covered with grating. Filters underneath cleaned the air and it was circulated back around to re-enter the room. The constant flow of clean air performed a sweeping function.

When the first cleanroom was tested “the dust counters went to nearly zero. We thought they were broken,” Willis said in a 1993 videotaped interview.

The laminar-flow cleanroom created a work environment that was more than 1,000 times cleaner than the cleanrooms that were in use at the time.

According to tests at the time, the laminar-flow cleanroom’s work area contained an average of 750 dust particles one-third of a micron in size or larger per cubic foot of air. (A micron is equal to 40-millionths of an inch.) That’s compared to average dust counts of more than 1 million particles per cubic foot of air in one of the best conventional cleanrooms in use at the time.

Bringing the cleanroom to the world

Willis gave his initial paper at the Institute of Environmental Sciences meeting in Chicago in 1962.

“While he’s in Chicago the TIME article hits and his phone just does not stop ringing,” Rebecca says. “Industry jumped all over it.”

But at a standing-room-only talk about a year later at the American Society for Contamination Control in Boston, manufacturers challenged the invention’s claims, accusing Willis of perpetuating a hoax, Rebecca says.

Jim Whitfield remembers his father’s story: “The numbers he was showing were unbelievable. At this conference, people were telling him that can’t be right. Then one of his colleagues [from Bell Labs] got up and said he thought Whitfield was wrong. His numbers are 10 times too conservative. So, he knew at that point that it was a dramatic shift in the technology.”

Others recognized it too.

Within a couple years, $50 billion worth of cleanrooms had been built worldwide. 

‘They come to you’

“When you have something that everyone wants, they come to you,” Willis said in the videotaped interview. “The desperate need for this accelerated the gap between development and production drastically.”

RCA and General Motors were early adopters of the cleanroom and the invention revolutionized the pharmaceuticals and microelectronics industries, Rebecca says.

MD Anderson Hospital in Houston built 22 cleanrooms to prevent infections in leukemia patients undergoing chemotherapy, Willis said in the 1993 interview. And Bataan Memorial Hospital, which later became Lovelace Hospital, was the first hospital to use laminar-flow cleanrooms in their operating rooms to prevent infections, Rebecca says.

‘He would always do the right thing’

Willis eventually worked with NASA to provide planetary quarantine efforts during missions to the moon and Mars and spacecraft sterilization techniques, Rebecca says.

But fame did not change Willis.

“He was a nice guy, very honest, very straightforward,” Rebecca says. “He was very modest about it. His values meant he would always do the right thing, even if it cost him personally. He made sure other people shared credit for things.”

The cleanroom design also made it possible to standardize cleanrooms for the first time, and a group of Sandia employees contributed to establishing federal standards for the government in 1963.

Had he invented the cleanroom today, Willis Whitfield might have become a very wealthy man. But back in the 1960s, the predecessor to DOE, the Atomic Energy Commission, held the patent in the public domain, Rebecca says.

During his career, Willis accrued many awards and honors, including the Holley Medal, presented by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Other recipients of the medal have included Henry Ford, Edwin Land (for the Polaroid Land Camera), William Shockley (for the invention of the transistor), Elmer Sperry (for the gyrocompass), and many others

After his retirement from Sandia in 1984, Willis continued to consult with all who would call him. He remained active in the Hoffmantown Baptist Church in Albuquerque, where he served in many capacities.

Willis is survived by his wife, Belva; son Joe Ray and wife, Joy, of Portland, Ore.; son James Donald of Albuquerque; a brother, Lawrence Whitfield; and sister, Amy Blackburn, both from Dallas, Texas.

Willis Whitfield lived to see his invention turn 50 this year, but was unable to give one last interview, so his son spoke for him, saying, “I’m sure in his heart, he was very satisfied that he made such a big and positive impact on society.”

-- Heather Clark

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Helping solve unique problems: Technologist Richard Simpson gets deeply involved in wide range of experiments

TECHNOLOGIST AT WORK — Richard Simpson (1384) places an acoustical sensor at a small lake Sandia built several years ago to do LNG fire tests on water. He has worked on numerous tests at the Labs in his 27-year career.           (Photo by Randy Montoya)

by Sue Major Holmes

Sandia technologist Richard Simpson (1384) has filled a canyon with soap bubbles, shot photos of liquified natural gas (LNG) fire tests from a helicopter, floated balloons hundreds of feet in the air to calibrate cameras, chopped out pieces of a Cape Canaveral launch pad to haul back for tests, and hoisted a beer with Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan in World War II.

He also has been audited for buying such things as party bubble juice on his procurement card. “You buy 20 party bubble machines, they kind of wonder why. You buy 50 gallons of party bubble juice, and they really wonder why,” he explains.

Richard Simpson has a pretty interesting job.

“You’ve got very smart people you work with, people who are fun to work with, rewarding work itself, supportive and understanding management,” he says. “I’ve been really blessed to have the career I’ve had during my time at Sandia.”

Like many of Sandia’s technicians, Richard has a broad technical skills background “to where I can contribute in numerous ways to most any project.” A  Sandian for 27 years, he’s been deeply involved in some experiments from conception, design, and fabrication all the way through to test and analysis. Other times he’s called for only a particular expertise.

He says there are good days and not-so-good days in field testing, like freezing one February morning waiting for a test to go off. “There are times when we’re digging a trench for instrumentation lines. . . . Or, oops, this fitting over here leaks, followed by then conducting a once-in-a-lifetime internationally recognized large-scale experiment. So it’s from totally unglamorous to very exciting and technological.”

Joined Sandia after the Navy

Richard was born in Arizona to an Air Force family. He’s lived all over the world, but considers Albuquerque his hometown and wanted to return after six years of active duty in the Navy. He registered for the laser electro-optic program at what’s now Central New Mexico Community College before his last overseas deployment, knowing the course had a long wait list. He was discharged in 1981, just in time to start the program. When he graduated with honors, he was hired by Lovelace Inhalation Toxicology Research Institute, then joined Sandia and also the Navy Reserves.

He has worked on numerous projects over the years, including supporting Sandia’s reactor safety experiment programs, the Hot Cell Facility, and rocket propellant fire tests. Last year, he was given the responsibility of obtaining slabs of a Cape Canaveral launch pad and nearby asphalt for upcoming studies into the effect of burning rocket propellant impacting those surfaces in a launch accident scenario. Because every region uses different aggregate in cement batches, project leaders wanted concrete from Cape Canaveral to make sure tests accurately represent the likely fire environment.

Richard, who’d successfully coordinated with multiple agencies during tests in the past, went to Florida on a fact-finding trip. There, a buddy who worked in the area gave him a name to call. The man he contacted turned out to be the chief of civil engineering at the Cape, and within minutes Richard had permission to cut up part of a retiring launch pad. “Nothing beats starting at the top,” he says.

He worked with NASA, DOE, United Launch Alliance, the Air Force, and others at Sandia and Cape Canaveral to finalize agreements, set up heavy equipment, and finalize training and approvals. Then he had to find someone to cut 4- by 4-foot by 6-inch slices of concrete from Launch Pad 17A and others to package and transport it to Sandia and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Maryland, which collaborates with Sandia. He also got samples of asphalt from a road around the complex. “I asked them for permission, ‘Can I cut the end of your road off there?’” Richard says.

Bubble tests aimed at helping computer models

The bubble experiments were aimed at helping with computer modeling of jet fuel fire tests.

“Sandia had developed great models of fire, but in a computer model you must have boundary conditions,” Richard says, marking an imaginary boundary with his hands. “You have to tell the computer where to stop its computations; otherwise your fire’s going all over here” — waving his hands out of bounds.

But fire is subject to wind, and experts wanted to measure the swirling wind patterns in three dimensions in an area 20- by 20- by 1-foot thick, far larger than a conventional flow visualization field. “We wanted to be at a very large scale, so the engineers thought ‘bubbles,’” Richard says.

He started with his usual cost-effective method, modifying something off-the-shelf for Sandia’s needs. In this case, that led to a battery of party bubble machines on towers in a canyon where Sandia does burn tests. Then he shone a large spotlight, the kind the Olympics uses to follow ice skaters, into a large spinning mirror he built. That technique reflected back a foot-thick wall of white light so flow patterns were visible to 3-D cameras shooting the region of interest.

“Stuff was happening way beyond that, which was captured on the wide-view cameras,” Richard says. “We had bubbles all over the canyon.”

The tests went off between midnight and 4 a.m. when wind conditions were ideal and the background was black. “So in the middle of the night I’m up there spinning up the large 1,000 rpm mirror, turning on the light, creating this wall of white light, starting up the party bubble machines. . . . Quite a beautiful sight,” he says.

Camera techniques developed for different jobs

Nowadays, because he’s developed specialized camera techniques, much of his work is macro, time-lapse, and high-speed video. Project engineers call him when they need imagery in a thermally harsh environment, such as documenting an experiment in Sandia’s solar furnace or weapons component burns. For such situations, Richard fabricated cooling housings for cameras.

He shows a video of a test item engulfed in flames. “We actually had a camera in this environment, right down in the bottom of a 1,000-degree Celsius test cell,” he says.

“Sometimes it’s not just a harsh environment, but a long-term harsh environment,” he says. Richard works with filters, mirrors, or different camera speeds — whatever’s needed. “If you can’t do it with filters or mirrors or jacked-up frame rates, you have to just understand a situation and put enough cameras on it that you can get the footage,” he says.

He shows a composite video, shot from different angles, of another test to study radiant energy and determine the hazard distance around a large LNG fire on water. He again worked with numerous groups to help set up imaging, including Kirtland’s Special Operations Command for two helicopters to fly photographers and Sandia Video Services videographers to document the tests. He also coordinated with Sandia photometrics experts in staging high-definition and high-speed cameras at various points on the ground — from spokes running east, west, north, and south from the test pool; from a control bunker a mile away; from a site 4 miles away off Kirtland. Thermal instrumentation was set up close to the pool and at various distances along the spokes.

Sandia built the pool for the tests, scraping out a shallow hole the size of a football field, using the dirt to build a reservoir to hold the fuel, covering the reservoir with concrete-capped aluminum, and running a concrete pipe from the reservoir to the pool, Richard says.

A cold snap froze the pool two nights before the large test, and technicians had to go out in a rowboat to break up ice. “These guys truly had the Sandia can-do attitude, doing whatever it took to get the test off,” Richard says. He tried to help by breaking up ice along one edge, taking the opportunity to shoot some video of them power-rowing while breaking through a field of ice. He laughs at the memory.

Balloons become calibration image

Richard also came up with a way for the photometric team’s cameras to measure the height of the flames. “We had to have a calibration image for them,” a giant yardstick to scale the camera lenses in advance. Anything higher than 500 feet has to be cleared with the Federal Aviation Administration, so Richard came up with a balloon array that tethered at 499 feet, with an 8-foot diameter yellow balloon at the top and smaller red balloons attached at 100-foot divisions along the line. “I talked to the (FAA) guy on the phone; he was OK with it. He goes, ‘Nope, 499, I don’t even want to talk to you,’” Richard says.

Then there’s drinking a beer with Paul Tibbets. Richard helped with media relations when what’s now the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History hosted the 509th Composite Group reunion on the 50th anniversary of the 1945 atomic bombing of Japan. Tibbets asked Richard if he planned to come to the crew’s suite for a drink afterward. Richard remembers his response as “Yes, sir, General.” At one point everyone went quiet while watching television coverage of the anniversary, complete with a classic photo of the crew in World War II next to the Enola Gay. “Seeing these guys 50 years ago, and standing next to them, I was just so humbled and honored to be there,” Richard says.

He recalls some griping once during the hard work of setting up a test. “I go, guys, guys . . . later on you’re going to look back on it and you’re going to say, ‘That was pretty cool.’ That’s it with a lot of the programs. It’s rewarding, very rewarding, to know the data that you’re producing has national and at times worldwide significance in the scientific and engineering communities.”


-- Sue Major Holmes

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Sandia hiring program helps wounded veterans get back in the game

Cheston Bailon of Shiprock, N.M., was the first injured veteran hired under Sandia's Wounded Warrior Career Development Program. Bailon was a U.S. Marine deployed to Iraq and now works at Sandia in information technology. (Photo on left courtesy of Cheston Bailon; photo on right by Randy Montoya)

by Nancy Salem

 Combat veterans often return with wounds — some visible, some not.

Sandia has launched a hiring program with the simple goal of helping those wounded warriors get into the workforce and develop career-based skills and experience.

“We want to give back to those who have given so much to our country,” says James Peery, director of Information Systems Analysis Center 5600 and champion of Sandia’s Wounded Warrior Career Development Program (WWCP). “They’ve earned the right to work here.”

The program helps combat-injured veterans catch up to their peers who entered the civilian workforce, not the military. “It can be hard for someone who’s been in the infantry or behind a rifle to develop technical skills and a resume,” says H.E. Walter II (4232-1), a co-chair of the Wounded Warrior Working Group, part of Sandia’s Military Support Committee. “They are trained, experienced leaders, but their skills don’t always translate into a civilian resume.”

The WWCP opens specific required jobs at the Labs only to military veterans injured in combat. Successful applicants are hired for a term of one to three years with the potential for permanent employment. An applicant can be out of the military for any length of time. And a college degree is not required, but those hired are expected to pursue higher education while working at Sandia.

“We are looking for highly motivated people who want to continue serving the nation and national security and have a passion to continue to improve themselves in skills and education,” James says. “Through their job, they gain training and experience while making contributions to national security.”

People to identify with

A key component of the program is mentorship. Wounded Warrior hires are assigned executive, technical, and veteran mentors who help them adjust to the civilian workforce and to Sandia, and steer them toward the work they really want to do. Mentors serve as role models and peers the veterans can learn from and identify with. “The executive is there for career counseling, the technical to get skills up to speed, and the veteran to help with assimilation to civilian life,” James says. “It helps to have someone who’s been there.”

The mentee “graduates” in one year to become a mentor to new Wounded Warrior hires, but still has access to mentors. “You never really lose your mentors,” H.E. says. “Once in the program, always in the program. There are all kinds of additional roles to be a part of.”

Four people have been hired so far, in Orgs. 90, 5300, and 5600. Three more hires are in the pipeline, in Orgs. 2900, 4020, and 9300.

The program is modeled after one at Oracle that James learned about at an October 2010 Sandia Fall Leadership Forum. Oracle’s Bud Langston talked about their program’s focus on helping wounded veterans who joined the military after high school catch up with their peers who went to college. “They lost ground because they served our country,” James says. “It was quite moving. I was sitting there and could sense that this was something Paul Hommert would get behind.”

After getting a green light from Paul, a Wounded Warrior working group in 2011 began the process of emulating the Oracle program with a Sandia flavor.

Hiring managers, volunteers needed

 The WWCP is looking Labs-wide for hiring managers who will sponsor an injured combat veteran with a real job need, and executives, members of the workforce, and veterans who can be mentors. Today more than 20 people volunteer their time to the program in some capacity.

“We’re constantly looking for more veterans, especially those with combat experience,” H.E. says. “We try to match up the mentee and mentor with the best possible fit, so it’s very important to have as broad a pool as possible.”

Hiring managers and volunteers can contact James or H.E. for information. Wounded veterans interested in working at Sandia can go to the woundedwarrior.sandia.gov website, click on “View All Jobs” and enter the keyword “Wounded.” That will bring up current Wounded Warrior job openings.

James envisions bringing six to 10 combat-injured veterans to Sandia each year. “For every hour I put into this program, the Wounded Warriors give me 10 back,” he says. “These are people who have faced a bullet, likely lost buddies, and survived horrific conditions. They bring to us incredible passion, loyalty, honor, commitment, sacrifice, integrity, and maturity beyond their years.

“They bring a presence unlike most people, having gone through that experience of serving our country without question and putting their lives on the line every day. They get up every day and want to do more. I’m inspired by their desire to get back in the game. We have so much to learn from them.”



-- Nancy Salem

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