Nanofabrication Lab Among Vital Core Research Facilities to Reopen During Pandemic

Researchers work in the clean room at Saab ETIC Image by Joson Images
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers in the Nanofabrication Lab clean room at Saab ETIC were well-protected from germs.

By Ed Brennen

When you exhale through your surgical mask, your breath barely travels a few inches before it is pushed down to the floor by overhead fans and sucked into return vents.

The room’s air is exchanged once every minute through ultra-low particulate filters that block out anything larger than a micron, or one-millionth of a meter. That’s much too fine for respiratory droplets, which measure a relatively rotund 5 to 10 microns.

And before you can even set foot in the room, you must put on head-to-toe protective gear — a white coverall, a lint-free hood, mask, gloves and booties — in a “positive-pressure” gowning room that keeps outside air at bay. 

Welcome to the safest place on campus during the coronavirus pandemic: the Nanofabrication Laboratory clean room at the Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovation Center (ETIC).

“COVID-19 wouldn’t have a chance in our clean room,” says Thomas Ferraguto, who has served as director of the Nanofabrication Lab since it opened in 2012.  

The lab is among 10 Core Research Facilities at UMass Lowell that provide state-of-the-art equipment, work space and resources for hundreds of faculty, students, and clients in industry and government. 
ETIC staff members Thomas Ferraguto, Jay Goodman and Patrick Casey outside the clean room Image by Ed Brennen
COVID-19 "wouldn't have a chance" in the clean room, according to Nanofabrication Lab Director Thomas Ferraguto, left, seen here with equipment manager Jay Goodman, center, and engineering technician Patrick Casey.

ETIC, which is home to five of the Core Research Facilities and also the Raytheon UMass Lowell Research Institute (RURI), was the first UML building to reopen in May — two months after the pandemic shut down the campus and put nearly all research work on pause.

“We were definitely the pointy end of the spear in terms of reopening,” says Ferraguto, who manages the ETIC facility and its three staff members. “Now we’re using what we’ve learned here to open up the rest of the buildings on campus.”

According to Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen, reopening the Core Research Facilities was a high priority for the university because they are “critical” for ongoing COVID-19 related research. At the Fabric Discovery Center, for instance, faculty and staff are testing personal protective equipment. At the recently opened Lyophilization Research Bay, biopharmaceutical companies have access to highly specialized technology to develop life-saving vaccines. 

“Sadly, we are clearly facing a longer timeframe for dealing with COVID,” Chen says. “With this longer timeframe, we need to help researchers continue to advance their work, which has an impact on all aspects of our society.

A committee, led by Chen and Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Research Administration and Integrity Anne Maglia, that included Director of Environmental Health and Safety Glenn MacDonald developed a plan to safely reopen the facilities. New protocols were put in place: Researchers must apply for access and complete virus safety training provided by The New England Consortium. Building capacity is reduced to around 25 percent. 
Thomas Ferraguto demonstrates a shoe cleaner Image by Ed Brennen
Thomas Ferraguto demonstrates the shoe cleaner that visitors are asked to use before entering the Nanofabrication Lab clean room.

At ETIC, access is now limited to the front entrance. Each visitor must swipe in with their keycard so Ferraguto knows who is in the building at all times, a safety measure that will assist with any potential contact tracing efforts.

“We don’t want tailgating — several people coming in under one keycard swipe,” says Ferraguto, who can keep a watchful eye on things from his office just off the main entrance, where he has set up a table with surgical masks, hand sanitizer and the latest literature on the coronavirus.

The Nanofabrication Lab, which features amber-tinted windows to block out ultraviolet light, is a Class 100 clean room, which means only 100 particles measuring about half a micron are allowed per cubic foot of air. 

One of the first faculty researchers to return to the lab was Man Hoi Wong, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. He and graduate research assistant Alexander Senckowski ’17 ’19, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, are working on an oxide-based semiconductor that can be used to make highly efficient power electronics devices.

“This facility is a necessary part of my research for design fabrication,” says Wong, whose work is funded by the Department of Defense. “A lot of these tools are very expensive to buy, so this kind of shared facility and utilization of resources is very helpful.”
Asst. Prof. Man Hoi Wong and Ph.D. student Alexander Senckowski outside the clean room Image by Ed Brennen
Asst. Prof. of Electrical and Computer Engineering Man Hoi Wong, left, and Ph.D. student Alexander Senckowski were among the first research teams to resume working in the Nanofabrication Lab.

Senckowski, who wanted to get back in the clean room “as soon as we could,” says he feels comfortable given the nature of the facility and the additional safety protocols put in place. But he looks forward to when the lab can return to normal operations in a post-COVID world.

“It’s definitely less crowded in there now, unfortunately. It will be nice when there are more people back,” says Senckowski, a native of Concord, Mass., who also earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering.

Industry clients, which include companies such as QmagiQ, MACOM and E Ink, were also happy to see the Nanofabrication Lab reopen in May.

“There was a lot of pent-up demand,” says Ferraguto, who notes that the lab had its best month ever in July, with nearly twice as many bookings as the previous July. 

Besides providing research and development resources for area companies big and small, Assoc. Vice Chancellor for Industry Partnerships and Economic Development Arlene Parquette says the Core Research Facilities open the door to further engagement with the university. 
Thomas Ferraguto puts on a cap in the gowning room Image by Ed Brennen
Thomas Ferraguto puts on a hair net in the gowning room outside the Nanofabrication Lab clean room.

“Sometimes a company coming in to use a piece of equipment is the first step in what becomes a bigger research partnership and collaboration with faculty,” says Parquette, who praised the work of Executive Director Karen Hamlin and her staff for reopening the facilities.

“They really rallied to provide service again as quickly as we could in a safe environment,” Parquette says.

While temporarily closing the Core Research Facilities for two months wasn’t easy, Ferraguto tried to make the best of the situation. He and equipment manager Jay Goodman used the downtime at ETIC to install new equipment, such as a plasma-enhanced chemical vapor deposition system.

Ferraguto, who earned his MBA from the Manning School of Business in 2014, now teaches an operations course in the college. He plans to talk about the COVID-related safety challenges he’s faced at ETIC with his students this fall.

“This is a great example of technical operations,” he says.