Smaller. Smaller still. Microscopic, nano (one-billionth) scale. Complex machines no bigger than a grain of sand. Research instruments that can manipulate molecules.
It’s tiny technology that’s set to have a big impact on our macro world within 10 years.
“This is a new chapter in microelectronics,” says bioengineer Rosemary Smith, a leading researcher in the field for the past 20 years. “More and more, traditional microelectronics manufacturing in this country is going overseas because of the excessive costs of facilities and personnel (here). That happens when manufacturing like this has matured, reached its limit. What’s new is nanotechnology and MEMS (microelectromechanical systems). They are the next big design and manufacturing fields in this country.”
MEMS technology, which has evolved out of the microelectronics industry in the past 30 years, essentially shrinks a machine or instrument onto a silicon chip, often adding “smart” capabilities. These micromachines combine electrical and mechanical components, enabling them to gather and communicate information, and, as the processed information warrants, take action. In addition, their size makes them inexpensive and easy to mass-produce. Microsystems can be utilized individually or in an array for micro or macro applications.
A commercially successful example of MEMS technology is found in vehicle air bags, where microsensors, called accelerometers, detect a collision and send an electrical signal to the inflation device. In inkjet printers, miniature devices act as actuators by responding to electronic signals to regulate ink flow. Digital light processing technology in high-density televisions and projectors provides sharp, bright images using a DMD (digital micromirror device) chip with more than
1 million mirrors, each a fraction of the width of a human hair.
“The field has gone through cycles,” says Smith. “Initially, the idea was to build microscopic intelligent sensors by merging integrated circuit technology with materials that provide sensing capability. In the biomedical arena, the focus was on implanted devices that were small and intelligent. But after five years of academic and industrial efforts, there still were many problems, both with biocompatibility, and because the integration of materials and technologies was too complicated. Consequently, there was a big shift in focus from doing smart sensors to the more basic science on material interfaces. That’s where research facilities like LASST (the University of Maine’s Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology) picked up.
“On the silicon end,” Smith says, “the shift was made to hybrid instruments, with sensors and integrated circuitry on separate chips. Then, with the genomics revolution, bench-top instruments and microfluidics came in. New materials have developed in the past 10 years that are now sparking a return to implantable and biomedical systems.”
In the world of medicine, MEMS is already found in some minimally invasive blood glucose testing devices using biosensor technology. Now in development are prototypes of the artificial pancreas and artificial retina, both involving “machines” and electronics that coexist on silicon chips. One of the biggest feats ahead for nanotechnology: personal, high-speed gene sequencing.
Smith and biochemist Scott Collins, who met while doing research on chemical sensors at the University of Utah, have a combined 50 years of experience in MEMS technology, working in government, academic and industrial laboratories. Both came to UMaine from the University of California – Davis, where they directed the Microinstruments and Systems Laboratory. Their research focused on chemical and physical biomedical microsensors, and technology development for analytical microinstruments — tools that allow scientists to work “at the same scale as the biology,” says Collins.
“Everybody wants something to help their research, and we hope to build those instruments. We’ll be designing research prototypes at low volume and cost,” says Collins. “Micro-technology development is our niche.”
In some ways, says Collins, “it’s like taking existing instruments and shrinking them as small as possible.”
Smith and Collins were attracted to Maine by the possibility of doing research and development to address the needs of scientists at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. In addition, Fairchild Semiconductor International, headquartered in South Portland, announced in 2001 that it is licensed to offer the SUMMiT micromachining process. SUMMiT is a multi-level MEMS technology created by Sandia National Laboratories, funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The focus by Smith and Collins on silicon-based microelectronic technology complements the material science research of UMaine’s Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology. For more than two decades, UMaine researchers have conducted research in high-tech areas related to surfaces, interfaces and thin film materials. Their work in advanced materials ranges from basic science to applied technology in such areas as microelectronics and chemical sensors.
“It’s unusual to find this broad scope of technology in one place,” Smith says. “That means we have a large toolbox for any instrument we want to build.”
LASST, housed in the Sawyer Environmental Research Center on campus, will have a new home in the $18 million Engineering and Science Research Building now under construction. As part of the new facility, Smith and Collins are designing a research laboratory customized for the development of microinstrumentation. Construction is expected to be completed this spring. Smith and Collins will spend a year preparing it for occupancy.
“The facility is being designed to accommodate a wide range of micromachining and materials. That will be unusual,” says Smith. “Usually, universities have facilities modeled after technologies on either end of the spectrum — integrated circuit or a non-silicon material. We’re designing a lab to keep the small scale with high flexibility.”
The researchers will be supervising graduate students in the lab. The hope is to ultimately develop labs and courses for undergraduates in a feeder program for this field of research.
“There’s a lot of talent at UMaine and in the vicinity,” Smith says. “Given the facility we envision, we hope our research will be a resource for small start-up and spin-off companies. This will be an incubator for them; there’s no other facility with this technology within 200 miles.”
Today, the trend in microinstrumentation is the same as it was with computers, Smith points out. At one time, they were relegated to scientific research institutions; now they’re in everyone’s home. In the near future, analysis tools found in clinical labs or big, expensive facilities will find their way into the home so people can analyze their environment on a routine basis. Microinstruments will provide more capability to the individual than he or she ever thought possible. It’s like 20 years ago; how could most people have known what it’s like to have a laptop?
“The hope is that it ultimately means an improved quality of life and better health because of new, improved and widely available technology. It’s what we’re striving for,” Smith says.
by Margaret Nagle