Around 8:30 a.m., May 18, 1980, the most disastrous volcanic eruption in U.S. history began at Mount St. Helens in Washington. Fifty-seven people died, thousands of acres of forest were leveled and the atmospheric effects were felt around the globe, with the Northwest as ground zero. In all, about 3.2 billion tons of particulate matter would enter the atmosphere, enough to block out the sun over Spokane, Washington.
Fine mist reached the Northeast in two days and circled the earth in about two weeks. Subsequent eruptions would continue to push debris into the air for months.
Intel’s Fab 4 and Fab 5 in Aloha, Oregon, were less than 80 miles from the volcano, and the continuing rain of debris from the initial blast and subsequent eruptions threatened the company’s entire operation. But the company’s resolve and adaptability would lead to the continuity of production at the Oregon facilities and a slew of discoveries that changed Intel’s clean room facilities and “bunny suits” throughout the company.
As aggravating as the ash and debris could be to deal with, they created a useful laboratory for developing and testing effective particle-reduction practices. The Intel employees in charge of fabrication in Oregon, Ken Moyle and Frank Alvarez, instituted a program called “Mr. Volcano” that collected data from eruptions, developed compensatory practices and refined those practices in response to updated data.
Among the things they implemented that were most effective in reducing the particle count in the facility:
- Air showers, which at the time were used at the entrance to the building, and even then only during an eruption.
- The permanent closure of two entrances that shifted the layout of the building to maximize the distance between entrances and fabrication environments.
- Sticky mats to absorb shoe debris.
- Tighter clean suits in which the shoe cover overlapped the pant leg.
Moyle explained the new shoe covers: “We’ve found that a lot of the dirt that got into the lab actually dropped down from the cuff of the pant leg. So the new boots come up and cover the cuff.”
The fully hooded, hermetic suits that would populate clean rooms in the future were still years away, but the principle of sealing breaks in the garments was now established.
The Mr. Volcano program protected Fab 4 and Fab 5 from the fallout of Mount St. Helens. The facilities had to close due to ash only once, after a June eruption created a cascade of particulates so dense that visibility outside the facility was less than 100 feet. Production resumed hours later.
The innovations pioneered at the plants had ramifications far beyond Oregon — they were so successful in reducing contamination that they gradually became implemented throughout the company. In that sense, “Mr. Volcano” never retired.
This story is among a series running to celebrate Intel’s 50th anniversary in 2018.