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MEMS : Applications and Challenges

Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, or MEMS, is a technology that in its most general form can be defined as miniaturized mechanical and electro-mechanical elements (i.e., devices and structures) that are made using the techniques of microfabrication. The critical physical dimensions of MEMS devices can vary from well below one micron on the lower end of the dimensional spectrum, all the way to several millimeters. Likewise, the types of MEMS devices can vary from relatively simple structures having no moving elements, to extremely complex electromechanical systems with multiple moving elements under the control of integrated microelectronics. The one main criterion of MEMS is that there are at least some elements having some sort of mechanical functionality whether or not these elements can move. The term used to define MEMS varies in different parts of the world. In the United States they are predominantly called MEMS, while in some other parts of the world they are called “Microsystems Technology” or “micromachined devices”.

While the functional elements of MEMS are miniaturized structures, sensors, actuators, and microelectronics, the most notable (and perhaps most interesting) elements are the microsensors and microactuators. Microsensors and microactuators are appropriately categorized as “transducers”, which are defined as devices that convert energy from one form to another. In the case of microsensors, the device typically converts a measured mechanical signal into an electrical signal.

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Over the past several decades MEMS researchers and developers have demonstrated an extremely large number of microsensors for almost every possible sensing modality including temperature, pressure, inertial forces, chemical species, magnetic fields, radiation, etc. Remarkably, many of these micromachined sensors have demonstrated performances exceeding those of their macroscale counterparts. That is, the micromachined version of, for example, a pressure transducer, usually outperforms a pressure sensor made using the most precise macroscale level machining techniques. Not only is the performance of MEMS devices exceptional, but their method of production leverages the same batch fabrication techniques used in the integrated circuit industry – which can translate into low per-device production costs, as well as many other benefits. Consequently, it is possible to not only achieve stellar device performance, but to do so at a relatively low cost level. Not surprisingly, silicon based discrete microsensors were quickly commercially exploited and the markets for these devices continue to grow at a rapid rate.

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:

Biotechnology

MEMS and Nanotechnology is enabling new discoveries in science and engineering such as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) microsystems for DNA amplification and identification, enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), capillary electrophoresis, electroporation, micromachined Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STMs), biochips for detection of hazardous chemical and biological agents, and microsystems for high-throughput drug screening and selection.

Medicine

There are a wide variety of applications for MEMS in medicine. The first and by far the most successful application of MEMS in medicine (at least in terms of number of devices and market size) are MEMS pressure sensors, which have been in use for several decades. The market for these pressure sensors is extremely diverse and highly fragmented, with a few high-volume markets and many lower volume ones. Some of the applications of MEMS pressure sensors in medicine include:

The largest market for MEMS pressure sensors in the medical sector is the disposable sensor used to monitor blood pressure in IV lines of patients in intensive care. These devices were first introduced in the early 1980’s. They replaced other technologies that cost over $500 and which had a substantial recurring cost since they had to be sterilized and recalibrated after each use. MEMS disposable pressure sensors are delivered pre-calibrated in a sterilized package from the factory at a cost of around $10.

MEMS pressure sensors are used to measure intrauterine pressure during birth. The device is housed in a catheter that is placed between the baby’s head and the uterine wall. During delivery, the baby’s blood pressure is monitored for problems during the mother’s contractions.

MEMS pressure sensors are used in hospitals and ambulances as monitors of a patient’s vital signs, specifically the patient’s blood pressure and respiration.

The MEMS pressure sensors in respiratory monitoring are used in ventilators to monitor the patient’s breathing.

MEMS pressure sensors are used for eye surgery to measure and control the vacuum level used to remove fluid from the eye, which is cleaned of debris and replaced back into the eye during surgery

Special hospital beds for burn victims that employ inflatable mattresses use MEMS pressure sensors to regulate the pressure inside a series of individual inflatable chambers in the mattress. Sections of the mattress can be inflated as needed to reduce pain as well as improve patient healing.

Physician’s office and hospital blood analyzers employ MEMS pressure sensors as barometric pressure correction for the analysis of concentrations of O2, CO2, calcium, potassium, and glucose in a patient’s blood.

MEMS pressure sensors are used in inhalers to monitor the patient’s breathing cycle and release the medication at the proper time in the breathing cycle for optimal effect.

MEMS pressure sensors are used in kidney dialysis to monitor the inlet and outlet pressures of blood and the dialysis solution and to regulate the flow rates during the procedure.

MEMS pressure sensors are used in drug infusion pumps of many types to monitor the flow rate and detect for obstructions and blockages that indicate that the drug is not being properly delivered to the patient.

The contribution to patient care for all of these applications has been enormous. More recently, MEMS pressure sensors have been developed and are being marketed that have wireless interrogation capability. These sensors can be implanted into a human body and the pressure can be measured using a remotely scanned wand. Another application are MEMS inertial sensors, specifically accelerometers and rate sensors which are being used as activity sensors. Perhaps the foremost application of inertial sensors in medicine is in cardiac pacemakers wherein they are used to help determine the optimum pacing rate for the patient based on their activity level. MEMS devices are also starting to be employed in drug delivery devices, for both ambulatory and implantable applications. MEMS electrodes are also being used in neuro-signal detection and neuro-stimulation applications. A variety of biological and chemical MEMS sensors for invasive and non-invasive uses are beginning to be marketed. Lab-on-a-chip and miniaturized biochemical analytical instruments are being marketed as well.

Communications

High frequency circuits are benefiting considerably from the advent of 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 RF and microwave circuits. The demonstrated samples of mechanical switches have quality factors much higher than anything previously available. Another successful application of RF-MEMS is in resonators as mechanical filters for communication circuits.

Inertial Sensing

MEMS inertial sensors, specifically accelerometers and gyroscopes, are quickly gaining market acceptance. For example, MEMS accelerometers have displaced conventional accelerometers for crash air-bag deployment systems in automobiles. The previous technology approach used several bulky accelerometers made of discrete components mounted in the front of the car with separate electronics near the air-bag and cost more than $50 per device. MEMS technology has made it possible to integrate the accelerometer and electronics onto a single silicon chip at a cost of only a few dollars. 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. More recently, MEMS gyroscopes (i.e., rate sensors) have been developed for both automobile and consumer electronics applications. MEMS inertial sensors are now being used in every car sold as well as notable customer electronic handhelds such as Apple iPhones and the Nintendo Wii.

MEMS Current Challenges

Some of the obstacles facing organizations in the development of MEMS and Nanotechnology devices include:

Access to Fabrication

Most organizations who wish to explore the potential of MEMS and Nanotechnology have little or no internal resources for designing, prototyping, or manufacturing devices, as well as little to no expertise among their staff in developing these technologies. Few organizations will build their own fabrication facilities or establish technical development teams because of the prohibitive cost. Therefore, these organizations will benefit greatly from the availability of MNX’s fabrication services, which offers its customers affordable access to the best MEMS and Nano fabrication technologies available.

Packaging

MEMS packaging is more challenging than IC packaging due to the diversity of MEMS devices and the requirement that many of these devices need to be simultaneously in contact with their environment as well as protected from the environment. Frequently, many MEMS and Nano device development efforts must develop a new and specialized package for the device to meet the application requirements. As a result, packaging can often be one of the single most expensive and time consuming tasks in an overall product development program. The MNX staff are experts in packaging solutions for devices for any application.

Fabrication Knowledge Required

MEMS device developers must have a high level of fabrication knowledge and practical experience coupled with a significant amount of innovative engineering skill in order to create and implement successful device designs. Often the development of even the most mundane MEMS device requires very specialized skills. Without this expertise and knowledge, at best device development projects can cost far more and take much longer. At worst, they can result in failure.

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