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Machine used to create circuits at center of Agilent explosion

Agilent Technologies may have shipped much of its manufacturing overseas, but as Tuesday's explosion highlights, cutting-edge research and development activity continues to go on at the company's Santa Rosa campus.

A technician was performing maintenance on a sophisticated piece of machinery used to create integrated circuits when an explosion occurred, severely burning the man over his face, according to fire officials

The machine is not used for mass production. Rather it allows the company's engineers to use a process called molecular beam epitaxy to perfect ways of applying extremely thin layers of substances used in the company's advanced circuitry.

Explosion At Agilent In Santa Rosa

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"We don't do volume manufacturing of our instruments here in Santa Rosa any longer, but this is a center for technology," Agilent spokesman Jeff Weber said. "One of those technologies is creating these high-performance integrated circuits, and this instrument is part of that process."

Agilent's customers use its test and measurement equipment to manufacture an array of communications devices. Technology developed in Santa Rosa is used by companies that manufacture half of the world's cell phones, Weber said.

Molecular beam epitaxy, or MBE for short, is a process that allows various elements to be heated into gases, whose atoms are then deposited onto circuitry. The entire process takes place in an extreme vacuum. This reduces the rate at which the atoms adhere to the components, allowing the coatings to be extremely thin.

"That is critical to the capabilities of the particular devices that we produce here in Santa Rosa," Weber said.

The exact cause of the accident remains under investigation, but a combination of phosphorous and seven other chemicals were involved in the flash explosion, said Mark Basque, a battalion chief for the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

Phosphorous is a dangerous by-product of the MBE process and can burn when it comes into contact with air, according to the website of Plainview, N.Y. semi-conductor equipment supplier Veeco.

The company makes a phosphorus recovery system specifically for MBE which it says "virtually eliminates the danger of phosphorus auto-ignition."


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