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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

pressure

drops in an airplane.

They are tiny electromechanical pieces known as MEMS (Micro

Electromechanical

Systems) that are the future of high-technology, the bane of

Y2K-ologists,

and a potential pot of gold for technically-savvy businesspeople.

"It is an entrepreneur’s dream," says Kenneth

"Beau"

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

Technologies,

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

seed ideas.

"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

Jersey-based

companies by providing all of the tools necessary for the development,

from the concept to the commercialization stage." On Monday,

November

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

856-787-9700.

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

respond

to changes in altitude and the automotive industry uses inertial

sensors

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

everything

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

something

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

fingernail,"

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

silicon

— 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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