MEMS promises to revolutionize nearly every product category by bringing together silicon-based microelectronics with micromachining technology, making possible the realization of complete systems-on-a-chip. MEMS is an enabling technology allowing the development of smart products, augmenting the computational ability of microelectronics with the perception and control capabilities of microsensors and microactuators and expanding the space of possible designs and applications.
Microelectronic integrated circuits can be thought of as the "brains" of a system and MEMS augments this decision-making capability with "eyes" and "arms", to allow microsystems to sense and control the environment. Sensors gather information from the environment through measuring mechanical, thermal, biological, chemical, optical, and magnetic phenomena. The electronics then process the information derived from the sensors and through some decision making capability direct the actuators to respond by moving, positioning, regulating, pumping, and filtering, thereby controlling the environment for some desired outcome or purpose. Because MEMS devices are manufactured using batch fabrication techniques similar to those used for integrated circuits, unprecedented levels of functionality, reliability, and sophistication can be placed on a small silicon chip at a relatively low cost.
MEMS and Nanotechnology Applications
There are numerous possible applications for MEMS and Nanotechnology. As a breakthrough technology, allowing unparalleled synergy between previously unrelated fields such as biology and microelectronics, many new MEMS and Nanotechnology applications will emerge, expanding beyond that which is currently identified or known. Here are a few applications of current interest:
MEMS and Nanotechnology is enabling new discoveries in science and engineering such as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) microsystems for DNA amplification and identification, micromachined Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STMs), biochips for detection of hazardous chemical and biological agents, and microsystems for high-throughput drug screening and selection.
High frequency circuits will benefit considerably from the advent of the RF-MEMS technology. Electrical components such as inductors and tunable capacitors can be improved significantly compared to their integrated counterparts if they are made using MEMS and Nanotechnology. With the integration of such components, the performance of communication circuits will improve, while the total circuit area, power consumption and cost will be reduced. In addition, the mechanical switch, as developed by several research groups, is a key component with huge potential in various microwave circuits. The demonstrated samples of mechanical switches have quality factors much higher than anything previously available.
Reliability and packaging of RF-MEMS components seem to be the two critical issues that need to be solved before they receive wider acceptance by the market.
MEMS accelerometers are quickly replacing conventional accelerometers for crash air-bag deployment systems in automobiles. The conventional approach uses several bulky accelerometers made of discrete components mounted in the front of the car with separate electronics near the air-bag; this approach costs over $50 per automobile. MEMS and Nanotechnology has made it possible to integrate the accelerometer and electronics onto a single silicon chip at a cost between $5 to $10. These MEMS accelerometers are much smaller, more functional, lighter, more reliable, and are produced for a fraction of the cost of the conventional macroscale accelerometer elements.
Fabricating MEMS and Nanotechnology
MEMS and Nano devices are extremely small -- for example, MEMS and Nanotechnology has made possible electrically-driven motors smaller than the diameter of a human hair (right) -- but MEMS and Nanotechnology is not primarily about size.
MEMS and Nanotechnology is also not about making things out of silicon, even though silicon possesses excellent materials properties, which make it an attractive choice for many high-performance mechanical applications; for example, the strength-to-weight ratio for silicon is higher than many other engineering materials which allows very high-bandwidth mechanical devices to be realized.
Instead, the deep insight of MEMS and Nano is as a new manufacturing technology, a way of making complex electromechanical systems using batch fabrication techniques similar to those used for integrated circuits, and uniting these electromechanical elements together with electronics.
Advantages of MEMS and Nano Manufacturing
First, MEMS and Nanotechnology are extremely diverse technologies that could significantly affect every category of commercial and military product. MEMS and Nanotechnology are already used for tasks ranging from in-dwelling blood pressure monitoring to active suspension systems for automobiles. The nature of MEMS and Nanotechnology and its diversity of useful applications make it potentially a far more pervasive technology than even integrated circuit microchips.
Second, MEMS and Nanotechnology blurs the distinction between complex mechanical systems and integrated circuit electronics. Historically, sensors and actuators are the most costly and unreliable part of a macroscale sensor-actuator-electronics system. MEMS and Nanotechnology allows these complex electromechanical systems to be manufactured using batch fabrication techniques, decreasing the cost and increasing the reliability of the sensors and actuators to equal those of integrated circuits. Yet, even though the performance of MEMS and Nano devices is expected to be superior to macroscale components and systems, the price is predicted to be much lower.