National Nuclear Security Administration

A story of an early tech transfer success: Willis Whitfield and the clean room

August 16, 2016

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Willis Whitfield of Sandia National Laboratories invented the clean room.

Dan Sanchez of the Sandia Field Office and Lee Finewood, NNSA's Technology Transfer Program Manager, stand in front of Sandia's technology display.The capabilities and innovations NNSA supports help ensure the country's role as a leader in science and technology while maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. In a recent visit to Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, NNSA’s Technology Transfer Program Manager for the Office of Strategic Partnerships Lee Finewood paid homage to one of the greatest tech transfer success stories of the nuclear security enterprise: the clean room.

“The clean room technology created over 50 years ago remains largely unchanged, but it continues to impact so many industries,” Finewood said. “It is a classic success story for tech transfer out of the NNSA: While the invention itself was created for the weapons program, it was so revolutionary that it brought advances in everything from semiconductor development to biotechnology. Without it, we wouldn’t have smart phones, for example.”

Whitfield in 2008Willis Whitfield was working at Sandia National Laboratories when he developed his invention that would revolutionize manufacturing in electronics and pharmaceuticals, make hospital operating rooms safer and advance space exploration.

In 1959, nuclear weapons components were being reduced in size. Microscopic dust particles were preventing Sandia from achieving the quality required for national security work. As a solution, Whitfield devised rooms moved air at a constant, steady rate, while filtering out particles. When he tested the first clean room, particle detectors started showing numbers so low – a thousand times lower than other methods – that many did not believe his claims.

“The clean rooms Whitfield developed set a new standard for manufacturing, disrupting old methods and opening the door for new and previously thought unobtainable materials. It’s exactly our goal for tech transfer from the national security labs, plants, and sites: to take technology developed for one purpose and hand it off for industry or academia to make it applicable in other ways, as well,” Finewood said.

Whitfield was honored posthumously by the National Inventors Hall of Fame for the invention of the clean room. Had he invented the clean room today, Whitfield might have become a very wealthy man. But in the 1960s the Atomic Energy Commission held the patent in the public domain, opening wide the doors of opportunity to stimulate technological development in industries across the spectrum.

“Despite being responsible for huge jumps in technological advancement as well as tens of billions of dollars of sales in its first few years alone, the technology itself was given to the world free of royalties,” Finewood said.

Learn more about how technology transfer supports the development and deployment of technological discoveries, providing ongoing economic, security and environmental benefits for all Americans.

Finewood and Savage take a look at the statue dedicated to Whitfield at Sandia.

Finewood in front of the R&D Awards won by Sandia.