Tag: mems

Scientists create 3D graphene shapes

GrapheneGraphene, which holds promise for future electronics devices, comes normally in flat sheets.

But scientists at the University of Illinois said they’ve been able to form 3D shapes from those flat sheets.

And that, they said, holds great promise for future graphene MEMS hybrid devices and for flexible electronics.

SungWoo Nam, an assistant professor at Illinois, said a variety of structures can be created including pyramids, pillars, domes, and 3D integration of gold nanoparticles.

“The flexibility and 3D nature of our structures will enable intimate biosensing devices which can be conformed to the shape and characteristics of human skin and other biological systems,” said Nam. “We also expect that our new 3D integration approach will facilitate advanced classes of hybrid devices beween microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and 2D materials for sensing and actuation.”

Apple could be ready to bosh Bosch

We’ve already reported that Apple had problems with the iPhone 5C because of “undersupply”.

And we’ve mentioned that chips from Bosch come into that “undersupply” euphemism.

Apple is now changing the MEMS supplier back to ST from Bosch with a board and software redesign already in progress.

There’s even talk from sources that Apple could sue Bosch for the sales it didn’t make.  And the sources say that Bosch probably didn’t understand how to ramp chips from zero to million in the course of a few week.

So, you might ask yourself, why did Apple switch to Bosch from ST.  One insider said: “The fault is clearly Apple’s with its manic desire to screw its supply chain by switching chip suppliers routinely to beat the price down and keep them on their toes.”

MEMS, MEMS everywhere and not a drop to drink

Before long now, it will become the norm to have detailed, indoor, 3D maps – accessible on your smartphone. Using intelligent software combined with sensing equipment, particularly with Microelectricomechanical Systems, the sort of tiny devices you find in smartphones, like accelerometers.

MEMS are often just milimetres in dimension which means they can be unintrusively placed pretty much anywhere. You name it – if there is a need for something to be sensored, they have an application. As components, they may not be as sexy as the latest Snapdragon chip, but they will also be crucial for building an intelligent world wherever precision is necessary.

Stefan Finkbeiner, CEO of Bosch Sensortec GmbH, sat down with TechEye for a chat. Bosch Sensortec, currently top in terms of revenue, we’re told, is well placed in the market for a couple of reasons. It got into the market very early and its R&D is in-house, meaning it knows where it wants to go with its own designs. Because Bosch is not a microprocessor company, Finkbeiner said, all of them are potential partners for the company. Chances are, if you have one of the household name smartphones, it’s almost certain to have Bosch equipment in there.

Though the more obvious applications right now are things like your phone understanding which way it’s being held and miniature microphones, there are some pretty interesting possible use cases. For indoor mapping, Finkbeiner told us, “all the hardware is available and in the phones”, whch high end phones often shipping with a pressure sensor. This means it is a software question, but detailed indoor maps will be available to the public. If a company thought it was a good idea, they could put MEMS in a shoe to measure certain factors. Or, Finkbeiner said, you could put MEMS on clothes: you would need power and an interface but they could also be put into a wristband, glasses, or other items of clothing and you’d “have very smart navigation that can communicate with your smartphones”.

“A lot of them will go into smartphones but not just smartphones,” Finkbeiner said. They could have applications in gaming, for example with an item to wear on your head, so the console would understand precisely which direction you’re looking. On a bigger scale, this could extend to limbs. It would be possible to build MEMS into wearable items when driving a car, for example, a head display that keeps track of your line of sight.

“I’m sure a lot of cases will come up we don’t even think about now,” Finkbeiner said. There could be “security applications where you could tell when someone is opening a door and if it should be open – or on a window, even just with an accelerometer”.

Due to their precision, the tiny devices can be applied to check for vital life signs. At the MEMS Industry Group’s MEMS Congress last year, we heard from one professor who said MEMS could have an application in detecting early-onset Parkinson’s disease, as they were able to pick up tremors that would otherwise go unnoticed.

As new products come out, there will be new applications, for example, the idea of a smart watch with no display could force new sensors or applications for existing sensors. Business wise, MEMS is worth a punt at the moment: with the upcoming hype that the Internet of Things – connectivity everywhere – will build, the mini machines could be found in almost every nook and cranny.

Some MEMS barely visible, magnified, next to a 2 euro coin.

Tiny micro electromechanical systems to harvest energy

Energy harvesting may seem like a pipe dream, but the reality is that it’s not too far away relatively speaking. Microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, could potentially help.

At MEMS Congress Europe in Amsterdam, a panel of energy researchers discussed some talking points about just how far off harvesting energy could be. The opinions ranged from never on a significant scale to quite possibly, although that conclusion seemed to depend on idealistic visionaries.

Wherever there is a need for measurement or sensors, there is a usable application for MEMS. Considering they are so tiny – in the millimetres at their smallest, not much more at their largest – the devices can be easily placed anywhere and measure direction, sound, and much more.

Professor Eric M Yeatman from Imperial College London said that he and his university had been engaging in quite a lot of activity in energy harvesting, for roughly ten years. Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN)’s Wim C. Sinke, meanwhile, said that there is most certainly a future for MEMS in sustainable energy.

To appreciate the role of MEMS, Wim said, it is necessary to take a step away and look at the energy sector at large. In terms of trends, there is movement away from central power generation towards a contribution from central systems. There will also be two way traffic – that is, small generators like solar systems feeding into the grid – and there will be multiple technologies acting as one. Microgenerators, storage capacity, wind energy: all of these will work together in an active way to make the whole system work.

The crucial point about MEMS, Sinke said, is that they can provide real time information on consumption and even on the prediction of consumption. Using this data, it is possible to assess energy traffic in a useful way. Think smart meters, but very precise. In some cases, because the devices are so energy efficient, it would also be possible for solar power to provide the energy for MEMS to work – if they’re not generating the power themselves anyway.

Yeatman said that the object is not overall to shave some energy from the world’s productive capacities, but to offer an efficient use of supply.

At this point, an audience member from MEMS company MicroGen pointed out that although there won’t be gains in saved energy directly through MEMS, the indirect route will ultimately save a lot of money. For example, the audience member said, by using sensors in every dryer in America to detect the best point of humidity, you could save billions of dollars by cutting off the cycle at the correct time.

IDTechEx analyst Harry Zervos pointed out that energy harvesting with MEMS has one major problem. The first M in MEMS stands for micro, so as you are downsizing you are also building smaller generators which will create less power. However, Zervos pointed out that there are emerging trends in ultra low power electronics being developed, and there is also a convergence in the kind of power that can be harvested – that is, solar, heat, and vibrational energy all together.

Ultimately the panel held a conversation with the audience that seemed to conclude MEMS can certainly play a role in harvesting energy and sustainable energy. To what degree is still up for debate. It was a difference of opinion between the panel and the audience just how much could potentially be harvested, created, and saved by the tiny devices, but the potential is there for business and for real world applications.

Radiation resistant MEMS could survive nuclear attack

MEMS devices could be used for computer and robotics circuitry to withstand radiation in a damaged nuclear power plant or deep space, even keep infrastructure working in a nuclear attack.

According to researchers at the University of Utah, MEMS developed logic gate devices have been developed which can survive intense ionizing radiation that would fry most circuitry.

Robots have already been used in areas of extreme radiation, such as the nuclear power plants which were severely damaged as a result of the tsunami in Japan last year. But despite heavy shielding it is only a matter of time before essential electronics cease to work.

The team at Utah claims to have developed MEMS which could create circuits able to withstand such conditions.

Tradional silicon semiconductors rely on channels to carry electrical current.  However radiation creates its own current and this can disrupt the ability of the semiconducting material to perform.

MEMS, on the other hand, do not have a semiconducting channel, and instead function by electrical charges causing electrodes to touch each other, acting like a switch. This means that they are not as susceptible to the effects of radiation.

There are downsides to MEMS, with silicon electronics around a thousand times quicker and substantially smaller.  MEMS devices also require larger voltages to switch from one state to another.

However, the team has worked to reduce the number of devices need to create a computer, and have also succeeded in reducing by a factor of 10 the amount of voltage needed to switch.

The next steps for the team, which has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is to start to create small computers based on the simplified MEMS circuits.

According to the researchers the end result could mean that the circuits, which survived 277 degree heat and two hours in the Utah university research reactor, will be able to withstand “cosmic ionizing radiation”, or to “help robotics to control troubled nuclear reactors without degradation”.

ST: Smart systems, MEMS to transform energy harvesting

While MEMS may be known now for their decades-old applications in the automotive industry and, in the consumer space, as the gyroscopes and accelerometers under the bonnets of our smartphones, in actual fact, the devices are really only at the beginning stages of development.

According to Carmelo Papa, general manager at STMicroelectronics, in 10 years time the game is going to look very different indeed. He told TechEye that MEMS will evolve into smart systems, which will become the core, together, with microcontrollers. Smart systems down the line could theoretically be equipped with electromagnetic and photovoltaic pads which can detect and harvest energy on the spot – through direct or indirect sunlight, or ambient light. Energy could be stored through flexible batteries and the calculations could all be performed with micro sensors. What is missing for this to happen, Papa says, is the transmission of the energy.

“Even in some cases,” Papa told TechEye, “you can also transmit data through the wireline of the house at 220 volts.” Because we aren’t fully aware of the effects of wireless communications, Papa said, there should be a mix between wired and wireless communications too. “In the end you share, some through the wireline and the rest you do wirelessly,” he said. New infrastructure won’t be necessary as this kind of powerline technology will operate on a normal live wire.

“MEMS will be smart systems that use both wired and wireless communications,” Papa said. “In the end, these will open up the field for new applications that are unthinkable today.”

A technology STMicro is already developing is the mixture of plastics and electronics. In a couple of years, Papa says, you will have, on the same system, completely integrated silicon and plastic. “You can increase the complexity of the devices,” he said. “One will be plastic, one will be purely silicon, and another will be silicon and plastic together. This increases the flexibility and reduces cost.” It won’t happen immediately but over the next few years.

Disposable electronics are one area where plastic electronics can have an immediate effect, according to Papa, like in healthcare devices with sensors that can detect the presence of certain viruses, and then can throw away. “3D integration, plastic, and silicon together, will increase the flexibility of smart systems,” he said. “But this will take some years.”
An example Papa cites of a real-world application where MEMS could prove useful include in firefighting. By having the correct sensors on firefighters, once they are in a building that’s on fire, it would be easier to monitor and figure out the exact danger areas. Or in areas which are at risk of mudslides, the correct kind of sensors could help predict when and how badly the mudslide would be. Or there are applications in anti-theft. With the proliferation of photovoltaic panels in emerging countries, the panels are targeted for theft. “You put MEMS on it, if they lift, the acceleration movement is detected and the signal is sent to a monitoring centre,” he said. More trivially, all you’d need is one of the tiny devices on the back of a painting in a museum and as soon as it moves, security knows. Industrial piping would benefit by monitoring gas flow – all it would need is a differential pressure sensor to detect any problems.

Of course, these kinds of technologies – from MEMS available today right the way through to data harvesting – efficient low power designs are absolutely necessary. “You really need to master the low energy consumption devices,” Papa said. “Everything is connected, so you need parallel improvement in all technologies – with data harvesting you are looking at nano-amperes in some cases, therefore you really need to master the lower consumption power technologies.”

Micro machines tipped as future in medicine

A panel of health professionals and MEMS industry specialists today said that if MEMS existed when the audience was growing up, thanks to their potential applications and accuracy, perhaps they wouldn’t have hated going to the doctor’s office so much after that first visit. 

The excitable panel suggested that micro-machine medicine is en route to being very big business, but first, researchers have to find exactly the right way to approach the challenges. Neurologist Francois Berger, M.D.-Ph.D., Director, CEA Leti – Clinatec, said that first and foremost, the biomedical need for MEMS has to be identified. “We realise that we need to interface between technology and medical applications,” he said. “It is important to have early contact with technology companies to define what we need.”

Such are the potential applications of MEMS that, in Berger’s opinion, the technology could become the next major player in the pharmaceutical industry. 

An example is an insulin pump, introduced earlier in the day by Carmelo Papa at STMicroelevtronics, which is accurate to the nanolitre and can be administred remotely. Chris Baten, program manager, 3D ambulatory motion analysis, Roessingh Research and Development, said that diabetes is indicative of a global medical disaster. The pump addresses the problems with diabetes today: it is very easy to treat, but the treatment effects your quality of life. “Quality of life is exactly the limiting factor of treating it today. With that pump,” he said, “it alters the way of living”.

Besides, according to the panel, there is nothing out there which can touch the same level of safety as MEMS devices. Back to the insulin pump there are sensors in the pump which immediately detect errors and raise the alarm, along with other ways to monitor it. Couple that with the nanolitres of precision and it could be argued that the machines are failsafe. “Another area is reliability,” Berger said. “If you speak about medical devices you are speaking about life sustaining devices – in essence, you can’t afford to have the system stopping at any time.”

According to Berger, the next medical trend will be in “electronic medicine.” An example is in Parkinson’s disease. In most cases, when the disease is discovered, the pathogenic cells have already been destroyed, but, he said, with MEMS it is possible to detect the disase early by checking for very early movement disabilities, way before the cells are fully destroyed. Then, also using MEMS to monitor reactions, he would be able to detect the efficacy of the drug along with its side effects. This is important because, during early stages, he claims it is possible to stimulate the brain and have it cause a regenerative effect within the body. MEMS, along the way, “can be there from early detection through to therapy.”

“MEMS is only part of the answer,” the panel agreed. “It’s not just about what’s under the hood, but also how it interacts with the user – the user interface is extremely important. MEMS i the enabler, but to really take effect it has to have proven clinical efficacy, or it will not be introduced into the market.”

And that will bring substantial challenges. Some doctors, according to MEMS industry insiders, are reluctant to adopt new technologies because they can take revenue away from healthcare. On the other side of the fence, the “consumer” of MEMS healthcare might not, in real terms, be overly keen to trust the technologies. But the potential is astounding.

Low emission standards to open the door for MEMS auto market

Here at the MEMS Industry Congress Europe, a panel discussed how the tiny devices are a growth economy in the automotive sector and outlined where the industry is heading. 

Principal MEMS analyst for IHS iSuppli Richard Dixon said that, in 2010 alone, the MEMS sensor market managed to grow by 28 percent, lending more weight to the argument that this is an industry in its infancy. In 2011, the market was up again by 15 percent. Dixon pointed out that pre-2008 sensors were growing at seven or eight percent and, he says, the car industry really managed to claw its way out of recession bringing MEMS with it. Now, it is entering a new fast growth phase, and this is driven mostly by lowering emissions and on safety.

Some devices also cover 99 percent of the market, like power sensors and airbags. What really is driving the market is safety mandates, according to Dixon. Emerging markets like China are of particular significance, with the country employing tire pressure monitoring systems in the majority of their cars over the next three years.

Driver assist is expected to become much of a feature, along with hybrid and electric vehicles. When markets like China and India open up further it will present the industry with more opportunities. But, Dixon said, “South America will be the next major market”.

With the Euro 6 emissions standards well on the way, companies are being forced to fight tooth and nail to cut down on emissions. Euro 6, Dixon said, could add implications for gasoline engines which produce too many particles, which in turn, could see a push for pressure sensors. In terms of safety technology becoming pervasive in cars, he closed: “You need a breathalyser in your car in France.”

Although companies which design and manufacture MEMS are trying their best to introduce devices and features which they hope will save lives, Freescale’s global automotive strategy manager, Marc Osajda, added weight to the claims that safety is driving in-vehicle MEMS. “A lot of accidents are related to human behaviour,” he said. Freescale, which is the largest supplier of pressure sensors in automative, hopes that with its devices it can at least reduce the number of accidents as much as possible.

As well as safety, Osajda said, reducing size and power consumption will drive automotive. “If you take an airbag, which is one of the largest markets,” he said, “the biggest technical improvement is probably cost reduction.” To streamline the MEMS process along with the testing helps cut costs all around, especially with how enormous the market for airbags is – with China leading the charge, followed by Brazil.

Hannu Laatikainen, executive VP in transportation at VTI, said while speaking on the panel that cars should be more like people. MEMS can help bring their senses to life – with what they are able to see, what they are able to hear, and even what they are able to taste. The audience laughed, but Laatikainen said it’s entirely possible to have a car recognise the quality of its own fuel.

STMicro outlines the future of MEMS

Speaking today at the MEMS Executive Congress Europe, here in Zurich, Carmelo Papa, senior executive VP and GM, industrial and multisegment sector for STMicroelectronics, outlined the progress and the next phases for an industry which is still booming.

Microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS, can be over-simplified as the tiny devices which mean your iPhone knows which way it is being held. But this is just a small portion of what MEMS are used for and what they are capable of. MEMS, as Papa’s keynote puts it, are only “limited by the imagination”.

Excluding the automotive sector, StMicroelectronics has been the top player for four years in a row, he claims. Automotive still makes up a “big chunk”, Papa said. “When I started with MEMS it represented almost 80 percent, now it is around 50 percent. It’s not that the portion of MEMS has shrunk, but the consumer industry overall has expanded, a lot.”

In five years from now, Papa estimates the ratio between the consumer and automotive segments will look more like 80 to 20 percent. At first, ST decided not to go into automotive because it is a “risky business” – if you start with gaming, for example with Nintendo, if something goes wrong it’s overall a lot less of a deal than if your BMW breaks down. 

“Now that we are safe,” Papa said, “in 2012 there are a lot of designs in automotive that will see us growing very, very fast in that field.” 

ST’s business used to be just based on accelerometers. Then, 2010 was the year of the gyroscope. In 2012, he said, we will see the combination of the sensors altogether, along with other sensors. All the gaming players were interested except for Microsoft, because it used a different type of sensor, but with Windows 8 on the way STMicro will be able to count Redmond as a customer too. “The way we have been moving around the world you can compare to lego,” he said. “Step by step, accelerometers, gyroscopes, then the combination of them together.”

This year we can expect to see other types of MEMS take off. The electronic compass will find its way into phones and cars, as well the altimeter or barometer for 3D positioning and e-GPS. “It will be pervasive,” Papa said. “You can have it everywhere,” even in watches.

MEMS are a no-brainer, ST suggests, because they add value at a very low cost in high volume. “20cm precision for a device that costs less than 50 cents- that is something that was unthinkable five years ago,” he said.

MEMS active microphones will continue to be installed. They “offer a unique sensitivity” and are “very unidirectional” – not only in mobile phones, but also in laptops.

Where is the market going from here? According to Papa, the competition is going to get bigger and bigger. It is “still very attractive land.” The way for companies to win will be for those companies who “have the imagination and the innovation rate so high to be able to appeal in front of customers”, so demonstrations mean you don’t need to be Einstein to understand the added value.

“The environment will be more and more crowded, but to understand the wishes and, in advance, what the market wants, you need to be very, very innovative,” he said. “The innovation rate will be the differentiator.”

Gyroscopes are the new boom market

Analyst house IHS claims that the latest booming piece of technology is the gyroscope.

For years the gizmo that keeps things balanced has been stopping aircraft and Italian cruise ships from flipping over. Now it is getting a new lease of life in the iPhone and iPad. IHS says this makes them the top consumer and mobile microelectromechanical sevice in 2011.

Microelectromechanical gear, or MEMS, netted $655.4 million in 2011, up 66 percent from $394.5 million in 2010.

The analyts think the gyroscope will take in $1.1 billion by 2015, well ahead of accelerometers at $705 million.

The newfound prominence of gyroscopes means the devices last year accounted for 41 percent of revenue for all kinds of motion sensors in consumer and mobile applications, including accelerometers and electronic compasses, at $1.6 billion. This is compared to a 24 percent share in 2010 when overall motion sensor revenue stood at $1.1 billion.

Gyroscopes have become more important thanks to the boom in 3-axis versions of the iPhone and iPad. When they are used with 3-axis accelerometers they provide more accurate motion sensing. Accelerometers correctly orientate phones and tablets to the viewer’s perspective whether the devices are held vertically or horizontally, gyroscopes improve the motion-based interface for things like gaming.

Jérémie Bouchaud, who is the director and senior principal analyst for MEMS & sensors at IHS, said that smartphones and media tablets are by far the main adopters of the 3-axis gyroscope.

He said that of the $655 million total revenue generated by the gyroscope space, the 3-axis segment accounted for $462 million, or 71 percent. Apple was the main consumer, accounting for 62 percent consumption of 3-axis gyroscopes, with other manufacturers like Samsung and LG also beginning to use them last year.

STMicroelectronics is the leading producer of both gyroscopes and accelerometers, with Apple accounting for half of the company’s MEMS business in 2011. STMicro is the sole supplier of gyroscopes and accelerometers for the iPhone and iPad.