July 5, 2011

Day 1

Today was a pretty perfect counter-example to the ideas we have in our head of research.  When I think of research, I imagine seasoned veterans with PhDs and white hair diligently pipetting solutions into well plates.  I imagine whiteboards covered in incomprehensible equations.  What I got today was not any of that.

After meeting with our head researcher to discuss our project, we followed a grad student to the clean room to practice making one of the basic components that we would need for our experiment to work.  It was the equivalent of learning how to pump gas so that you could drive a car.  No gas, no working car.  So we get dressed up for the clean room, and that means bunny suits.  You can see how they got that name:

We have to wear these to protect the materials from dust and other particles that our bodies give off.

So anyway we go the lab, get dressed, and then start the process of making our materials.  Today that means we need to make a silicon wafer, which I'll just call "the chip."  First we clean the chip, which is easy.  Just wash it with some chemicals and then dry it off by blowing nitrogen gas on it.  But we go to blow the gas and it turns out that the lab is out of gas.  The nitrogen comes out with such little pressure that it won't dry the chip.  Oh well, we think, we'll try another lab station.  So we hit another one, but same result.  Guess we have to use a paper towel.  This is horribly against the rules because it will make it impossible to get a proper chip created, but we do it anyway because this is just a practice run, and we need to get to the rest of the steps.

Next we have to put photoresist on the chip.  This is a fun chemical that reacts to light.  We open the cabinet, and while it appears to be overflowing with bottles of photoresist, none is the correct type for our chip.  We pick one that seems "close enough" and use it anyway.  After applying it to the chip using a special spinning machine, it appears that the photoresist was not applied correctly, and the chip is a complete loss.  Whatever, we think, let's go through the steps anyway just to get practice.  So we go to the machine that we need next, but it happens to be giving a loud beeping error message: lamp overheating.  Why?  Turns out that the same nitrogen which we needed to dry our chip is also used to keep the lamp cool in this machine.  So we turn the machine off since no one can use it.

Error after error after error, and no one was really at fault.  That's research for you.  Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't.  Tough luck.

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