There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom

In 1959 well known physicist, Richard Feynman, presented his now seminal talk—“There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”—where he described a world of miniature manufacturing machines able to construct smaller and smaller versions of themselves until we were talking of truly small devices and/or materials even at molecular and atomistic levels.  Feynman’s talk 53 years ago presaged the introduction of MEMS—Micro-Electronic Mechanical Systems—“machines” or devices that are only on the order of hundreds of microns (10-6 meters) in size.  These “teeny, tiny” machines smaller than the width of a strand of hair stand poised to revolutionize our world very much like integrated circuits in 1970 completely changed our ability to compute and communicate through smaller and smaller memory chips that took us to manufacturing resolutions on the submicron level.  It is in fact this chip manufacturing capability that is opening new doors in the world of MEMS and MEMS devices (Click here for MEMS video).

Scanning Microscope photo of a MEMS Device--Sandia National Lab

Whether we realize it or not MEMS devices/machines are already a large part of our lives.  They are used as accelerometer sensors in air bag deployment systems used in modern automobiles—hundreds of millions of sensors now on our busy freeways and interstates.  Texas Instruments introduced Digital Mirroring Devices—DMD technology made up of MEMS mirroring devices—to create high resolution flat display screens to compete with plasma TV monitors.  These are only a few of the potential applications one can imagine for these devices.  Scientists and engineers worldwide are busily looking at evermore complicated and critical MEMS devices and applications as they imagine a revolution in how we monitor health (“laboratories on a chip”), drive automobiles and aircraft, communicate or otherwise look to revolutionize our society through this technology.

A number of organizations in the Paso del Norte region (West Texas, Southern New Mexico and Northern Chihuahua) have been working collaboratively over the past seven years in the area of MEMS and Nano-technology (even teeny-tinier devices).  These include the BNSL, the University of Texas at El Paso, Sandia National Lab, New Mexico State University, the Autonomous University of the City of Juarez, the National Advanced Materials Laboratory of Chihuahua, among more than 20 institutions and organizations, participating in a loose coalition of collaborators or “cluster.” Much of this work has focused not only on the MEMS devices themselves but at the equally complicated issues of packaging or encapsulating these tiny and obviously fragile devices.  This is a particularly daunting task when one considers the extreme environments—automobile engines, aircraft exhaust systems or even the human body—one quickly understands the importance of this line of research and technology development.

The Paso del Norte region is blessed with a number of preeminent research facilities and institutions working to advance MEMS and Nano Technology.  These include:

  • Sandia National Lab, MESA Facility—the $200 million Microsystems Engineering Sciences and Applications (MESA) Complex encompasses nearly 400,000 sq. ft. and includes clean room facilities (over 27,000 sq. ft) with the ability to support state-of-the-art microfabrication capability for applied research, technology development and prototyping of MEMS devices.  One recent development is the Microsystems Enabled Photovoltaics, micro-solar cells distributed in flexible, micro-lens arrays, allowing for highly efficient solar cells which can be integrated onto clothing, irregular surfaces and other unusual structures.

    Sandia developed Microsystems Enabled Photovoltaics, microsolar cells.

  • Los Alamos National Lab’s CINT–together with Sandia the Center for Integrated Nanotechologies (CINT) is a user access facility designed to allow outside researchers to work in collaboration with these two national labs focused on nano technology and MEMS integration, featuring a 96,000 sq. ft. core facility at Sandia for materials synthesis, device integration and testing and a 36,500 sq. ft. materials complex for chemical and biomaterials synthesis, fabrication and analysis. These facilities are specially designed and operated to open the door for cutting edge MEMS and nano technology R&D capability for outside university and private sector researchers.
  • University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP)’s NanoMIL Laboratory (Nanomaterials Integration Laboratory), a brand new 5800 sq. ft. (2500 sq. ft clean room) facility as part of UTEP’s new $75 million science and engineering complex.  Work at the NanoMIL lab includes, nanomechanics, patterned solar cells, MEMS packaging, and nanoscale growth.  UTEP, in collaboration with its partners (UACJ, NMSU, Sandia, etc) in the region is key to developing the new scientists and engineers needed to work in this transformative R&D area.
  • Universidad Autonima de Ciudad Juarez (UACJ)’s Centro de Investigaciones en Ciencia y Tecnologia Aplicada (CICTA) has a state-of-the art MEMS research and development facility featuring almost 1,000 sq. ft. of class 1000 and 10,000 clean room space and more than a dozen specialized research instruments for MEMS device fabrication, testing and characterization.  Of particular note is a special two year project with Mexico’s national petroleum corporation (PEMEX) to develop down-hole MEMS device microsensors for petroleum exploration and development.
  • SendaMicro Technology Inc. a startup company headquartered in El Paso and Cd. Juarez, the company specializes in MEMS switching devices for use in the telecommunications and computer industry.  The company is preparing to launch its first product produced in collaboration with universities  and institutions in Mexico (UACJ) and the US (UNM, UMichigan & UTEP) and has acted as a strong facilitator for technology transfer from academia to commerce.  Ultimately, the company hopes to see revenues on the order of $5 million annually for its MEMS devices and services.

While, as Feynman said, there is “plenty of room at the bottom”, there is also plenty of room for economic expansion based on this exciting new technology.—Paul Maxwell


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