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This article by Melinda Sherwood was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 10, 1999. All rights reserved.
NJ & Micro Devices Perfect Together
They are what tell your airbag to deploy on impact.
They can take your blood pressure from the tip of an IV. They steady
the lens in your camcorder and cause an oxygen mask to fall when
drops in an airplane.
They are tiny electromechanical pieces known as MEMS (Micro
Systems) that are the future of high-technology, the bane of
and a potential pot of gold for technically-savvy businesspeople.
"It is an entrepreneur’s dream," says Kenneth
Farmer, the director of the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s
multi-million dollar MEMs program (http://www.njit.edu/mrc).
"There’s such potential, and if you have an idea, we are here
to get the concept off the ground."
At its $20 million facility, NJIT conducts research and develops these
tiny electromechanical relays to help area companies. Lucent
for example, contracted with NJIT for the development of microscopic
mirrors, known as optical sensors, that will guide traffic through
the network of fiber optics much like a switcher does on the railroad.
NJIT, which receives roughly $1 million in grants per year, also grows
"One guy came to us and said I believe there is a special need
for a chemical sensor for the pool industry," says Farmer. "I
said we will investigate it, the management people will see if there’s
a market, and the technical people will look at a wide variety of
chemical sensors. The goal of NJIT’s MEMS program is to enable the
development and commercialization of MEMS technology for New
companies by providing all of the tools necessary for the development,
from the concept to the commercialization stage." On Monday,
15, at 4 p.m. Farmer hosts companies at the Microelectronics Center
at 323 MLK Boulevard in Newark for a seminar titled "Can the NJ
MEMS Initiative Boost your Company’s Future." Cost: $40. Call
MEMS are essentially miniature relays that detect changes or patterns
in pressure, movement, fluids, temperature, light, and the presence
of chemicals. The aerospace industry employs pressure sensors to
to changes in altitude and the automotive industry uses inertial
to deploy airbags. In the medical industry, fluid regulation sensors
can be used to do blood work previously done by lab technicians, and
chemical sensors, which sniff out the presence of radon, for example,
can be used to speed up the process of drug development and discovery.
Optical sensors, tiny mirrors, are in demand by the telecommunication
industry. "To discriminate between signals, you need to do
you would do with electricity but do it through light," explains
Farmer, an associate professor of physics at NJIT who received a BS
in engineering from University of Virginia, Class of 1983, and a PhD
in physics from Cornell. "You need mirrors that are microscopic,
a very flat mirror. The technology to make a flat mirror is tough.
It’s only been developed in the last three or four years. It’s
that looks simple but it’s on the cutting edge of technology."
The idea, naturally, is that these relays are small enough to fit
inside modern electronic devices. "A thermoelectrical relay device
can be as narrow as a hair, and as long as cuticle on your
says Farmer. "For cellular phones conventional relays are too
big. If you need 10 or 20 of them you’ve got a few pounds in your
cellular phone. The most important aspect of this miniaturization
is that you’ve got incredible control and mass production capability.
You can make hundreds of integrated circuits on a single wafer. This
really lowers the cost."
The technique for making MEMS requires expensive tools that drill,
etch, deposit and bond materials, creating hundreds of components
on a wafer no more than six inches in diameter. It’s a revolution
in the old mass production model, says Farmer, that would have parts
made in one country and shipped to another and slapped together on
an assembly line. "It’s called a disruptive technology because
it revolutionizes how products are made in a particular industrial
setting," he says. "MEMs is probably going to explode. The
number of patents since 1985 is growing exponentially."
Farmer holds one of those patents — for an ultra thin bonded
— and he’s seeking patents on some interesting electronic devices.
"There’s a lot of potential there," says Farmer. "Stanford
does it all of the time."
— Melinda Sherwood
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