[IWAR] FUTURE micromachines, almost there...

From: 7Pillars Partners (partnersat_private)
Date: Thu Apr 23 1998 - 22:23:26 PDT

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    Scientists say a technological revolution is on the horizon
     Knight Ridder News Service 
     WASHINGTON -- Tiny machines no bigger than a fingernail, a grain
     of rice or a red blood cell have been twirling, buzzing and slithering
     across the pages of science fiction and research laboratory benches
     for years.
     Now these Lilliputian gadgets are beginning to enter the real world.
     Following on the success of crash sensors in automobile airbags, new
     micromachines are being developed to sniff anthrax or nerve gas, to
     protect nuclear weapons and to resuscitate laboratory mice.
     Enthusiasts say they are the advance wave of a technological
     revolution comparable to the introduction of computer microchips.
     ``Imagine a machine so small that it is imperceptible to the human
     eye,'' said Al Romig, director of the Microsystems Science,
     Technology and Components Center at Sandia National Laboratory
     in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
     ``Welcome to the microdomain -- a place where gravity and inertia
     are no longer important, but the effects of atomic forces dominate,''
     Romig wrote in a description of his lab's work published on the
     Sandia, along with other government and private research centers,
     designs ``microelectronic mechanical systems'' (MEMS) -- or
     ``micromachines'' for short.
     As their name implies, these miniscule contraptions combine both
     electronic and mechanical functions in a single device. They are
     etched out of silicon, the raw material of computer chips, which can
     be engineered at scales of millionths or billionths of an inch.
     But unlike a computer chip, MEMS don't just ``sit there and think,''
     said Karen Marcus, director of the MCNC Technology Applications
     Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.
     Instead, she said a typical micromachine senses its environment,
     figures out what it means, and then does something useful, such as
     inflating an airbag, steering a ballistic missile or reporting the presence
     of poison gas.
     Although they are difficult to design, diminutive machines made of
     silicon can be mass-produced cheaply, said Mark Bird, chairman of a
     new electronics industry committee established this month to develop
     standards for this dawning technology. They also, he said, work
     faster, more precisely and more reliably than larger mechanisms
     constructed of metal.
     ``Metal gets fatigued and has to be replaced,'' said Bird, an engineer
     at Amkor Electronics, a semiconductor company in Chandler, Ariz.
     ``A silicon device will continue to work for decades without wearing
     A microsensor used to detect hydrogen leaks aboard NASA
     spacecraft costs 10 times less, works 10 times faster and is 10 times
     more sensitive than conventional devices, according to Paul
     McWhorter, a Sandia engineer.
     The first widespread commercial application of micromachines are the
     crash sensors used since the early 1990s in automobile airbags.
     About a tenth of an inch across, these accelerometers sense a sudden
     change in a car's velocity, analyze it and flash a signal to inflate the bag
     in a fraction of a second.
     Coming next are more advanced mini-detectors that can respond to
     skids and roll-overs, said Pontus Soderstrom, manager of advanced
     systems technology for Autoliv (cq), a sensor company in Auburn
     Hills, Mich.
     Similar motion detectors are being developed for use in computer
     mice and in game controllers. ``No more joystick wrist for Nintendo
     players,'' said Marcus. The Air Force wants to apply similar
     technology to its missiles, she added.
     Some other examples of micromachines now on the drawing boards
     or in testing:
     --Perhaps the most complex MEMS so far is ``Stronglink,'' a
     miniature padlock for nuclear weapons designed by Steven Rodgers,
     a Sandia engineer. To unlock it, an operator enters a 24-digit code
     that steers a pin through a maze, turns a set of silicon gears with teeth
     the size of blood cells, pops up a mirror that relays an optical signal to
     an electronic switch that -- finally -- arms the bomb. One false move
     by a terrorist would jam the works of this midget Rube Goldberg
     device forever.
     --The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is developing a
     chemical and biological weapons detection system called ``Dognose,''
     an array of delicate sensors on a silicon chip.
     ``They're trying to replicate a dog's nose, one of the most sensitive
     sensors in the world,'' Marcus explained. Hundreds of them could be
     thrown out the back of an airplane, she said. If they sniff anthrax or
     nerve gas, they would radio a warning to a computer.
     Sandia is also experimenting with very small seismographs to detect
     weapons explosions. ``We could sprinkle them all over the world,''
     said Harry Weaver, a technology manager in the microelectronics lab.
     --Engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in
     Cambridge are building gas turbines the size of a shirt button, like
     miniature jet engines, that weigh less than half an ounce and generate
     10 to 20 watts of electricity. They could replace the unreliable
     batteries now used in laptop computers and other products.
     MIT is also designing a ``mouse respirator,'' a tiny version of an iron
     lung for laboratory mice suffering breathing difficulties. These strains
     of mice take years to develop and cost as much as $200 each,
     according to Dr. Chi-Sang Poon, of the Harvard-MIT Division of
     Health Sciences and Technology. ``Until now there was nothing
     available to resuscitate these mice, which represent a major
     commitment of research time and money,'' he said.
     -- Henry Guckel, a professor of electrical engineer at the University of
     Wisconsin, Madison, developed a microscopic pressure gauge that
     can be mounted on the tip of a catheter and inserted into the heart to
     measure its pressure. The device is already in use in Sweden, Guckel
     Another Guckel invention -- a set of gears with teeth measuring eight
     thousandths of an inch -- is being used in miniature pumps
     manufactured by a company in Biel, Switzerland.
     -- Eun Sok Kim, an electrical engineer at the University of Hawaii, is
     developing midget microphones and speakers, less than a thousandth
     of an inch wide, that generate extremely fine sound waves. Kim said
     there is ``good potential for commercialization'' of his devices in
     ink-jet printers, hearing aids and other products.
     -- On a slightly larger scale are shrunken versions of Sojourner, the
     23-pound, two foot-long rover that cruised the surface of Mars
     during last year's Pathfinder mission. NASA is building a one-pound,
     five-inch mini-rover to ride a Japanese spacecraft to the asteroid
     Nereus in 2001. Its mission is to land on the asteroid, collect samples
     and return them to Earth by 2006. ``They're running around the lab
     right now,'' said systems engineer Stacy Weinstein.
     Further ahead, NASA is considering a fleet of one-ounce, one-inch
     ``gnat rovers'' proposed by Anita Flynn, a robotics expert from MIT.
     A host of such little rovers could scatter over the Martian surface,
     seeking evidence of water.
     Other applications include switches for high-speed fiber optic lines,
     radio frequency tuners for wireless communications devices and tiny
     pumps for ink-jet printers or blood monitors.
     Despite the fascination with micromachines, Sandia's Weaver
     cautioned that this is ``not a mature technology. Very few of these
     things are on the market.''
     Several small companies trying to make a living off MEMS have gone
     ``We're just turning the corner,'' said Marcus. ``The financial
     community is starting to warm up to MEMS. We're limited only by
     the imagination of the engineers.''

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