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32. MEMS: Microelectromechanical Systems - Nifty 50

Microscopic gears

Information systems used to be embedded in computers at fixed locations. Now they are also found in nearly everyone's hands and pockets, thanks to miniaturization of electromechanical systems.

Using the fabrication techniques and materials of microelectronics as a basis, micro electro mechanical systems (MEMS) processes are shrinking machines to microscopic dimensions.

Smallest motors

Already the world's smallest motors have rotors that are less than the diameter of a human hair. These motors are powering optical switches, valves and airbag deployment sensors.

To shrink machines to microscopic dimensions, NSF-funded engineers rely on the same technology used to make integrated circuits. Mechanical components in MEMS have dimensions that are measured in microns, from a few to millions. MEMS machines are the size of a pinhead.

An overall strategy

MEMS are not single applications or devices, nor are they defined by a single fabrication process or limited to a few materials. More than anything else, MEMS represent an overall strategy combining miniaturization, multiple components and microelectronics to design and fabricate integrated electromechanical systems.

NSF funded early development work, including fundamental research on microscale phenomena, manufacturing processes and applications. This work in turn has fueled the current multibillion dollar MEMS industry.

New uses

Widely used, MEMS devices and their use will continue to expand. Already, cars, fighter aircraft, printers and munitions use MEMS devices,and the devices account for a relatively small fraction of their cost, size and weight.

MEMS devices and the smart products they enable will create new opportunities for perceiving and controlling our work and life environments and will increasingly be the performance differentiator for both defense and commercial systems.

While MEMS devices will be a relatively small fraction of the cost, size and weight of these systems, MEMS will be critical to their operation, reliability and affordability.

Original publication date: April 2000

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