For the most part, existing MEMS devices are two-dimensional, with functional elements engineered on the surface of a chip. It was thought that operating in three dimensions — to detect acceleration, for example — would require complex manufacturing and costly merging of multiple devices in precise orientations.
Now researchers at MIT have come up with a new approach to MEMS design that enables engineers to design 3-D configurations, using existing fabrication processes; with this approach, the researchers built a MEMS device that enables 3-D sensing on a single chip. The silicon device, not much larger than Abraham Lincoln’s ear on a U.S. penny, contains microscopic elements about the width of a red blood cell that can be engineered to reach heights of hundreds of microns above the chip’s surface.
Fabio Fachin, a postdoc in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, says the device may be outfitted with sensors, placed atop and underneath the chip’s minuscule bridges, to detect three-dimensional phenomena such as acceleration. Such a compact accelerometer may be useful in several applications, including autonomous space navigation, where extremely accurate resolution of three-dimensional acceleration fields is key.
“One of the main driving factors in the current MEMS industry is to try to make fully three-dimensional devices on a single chip, which would not only enable real 3-D sensing and actuation, but also yield significant cost benefits,” Fachin says. “A MEMS accelerometer could give you very accurate acceleration [measurements] with a very small footprint, which in space is critical.”
Fachin collaborated with Brian Wardle, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, and Stefan Nikles, a design engineer at MEMSIC, an Andover, Mass., company that develops wireless-sensor technology. The team outlined the principles behind their 3-D approach in a paper accepted for publication in the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems.