MEMS is an acronym for Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems. It combines electrical and mechanical elements together into one piece that measures, to put things into perspective, less than the width of a single human hair.
Essentially, this nanotechnology-derivative allows the “brains” and the “arms and legs” of an operating system to be put onto one small silicon microchip, whereas prior the development of MEMS they were two separate systems that had to be integrated.
Not only does the new one-chip combination allow for streamlined efficiency, it also means lower production costs and more reliability.
Additionally, it has made possible a whole new set of “smart” products that can use the MEMS chip to bridge gaps between various disciplines.
This amazing synergy is nowhere more evident than in the medical field. In some cases MEMS has been used to enhance previously-existing devices, such as scalpels. Many surgical tools have been equipped with “smart” technology to give them a more delicate touch when dealing with the human body.
MEMS is perfect for this application because it is an offshoot of nanotechnology and its extremely small size makes it capable of both large-scale and microscopic control.
No matter how highly trained a surgeon is, he or she is still operating on the macro-scale, and the human body functions largely on the micro-scale. Especially when it comes to delicate operations such as removing a tumor, MEMS technology can help to remove cancerous tissue right down to the last molecule so that there is no chance of re-growth.
In the MEMS scalpel, for example, scientists put the sensor chip as close to the edge of the blade as possible. Not only does this allow doctors and surgeons to have extremely delicate control over their tools, but it also improves the possible level of control so much that scientists anticipate new surgical procedures developing around MEMS technology.
To make any type of surgery go more smoothly, these superior sensors can read and relay information about the surgery being performed so that surgeons have information about the area in which they are cutting as well as data that shows how their surgery is progressing.
In some situations it can be difficult to see clearly what is going on inside the human body, but MEMS scalpels could provide mapping technology to guide surgeons more clearly.
They could also protect the patient from mistakes; some companies have even equipped MEMS scalpels with the ability to shut themselves off if the blade wanders too close to a vein. Needles and drills could provide similar levels of control and information so that in the future, surgery will be much more reliable, accurate, and safe than it has traditionally been.
MEMS technology also leads to greater safety for automobile drivers. With their super-powerful sensors, MEMS accelerometers can sense when a vehicle has been in an impact; they can even judge the speed and severity of the crash in order to deploy airbags at the right speed and volume.
This is important because in many cases, airbags that deploy either too quickly or too slowly can cause death. Manufacturers will be able to save lives by implementing this smart technology.
These same accelerometers can be adapted in surprising ways; you may have heard of a little thing called the iPhone, which actually uses extensive MEMS technology for many of its applications. Sensitive MEMS accelerometers can be scaled down and incorporated into handheld devices like mobile phones.
They allow the phone to sense which way it is being turned and shift the screen from a portrait layout to a landscape layout, for example. They are also responsible for much of the hype about iPhone games, which use gimmicks like shaking the phone in order to roll dice.
Cell phone MEMS devices can also be integrated with an electronic compass in order to provide the GPS positioning system that iPhones offer. Because of MEMS’ tiny size and versatility this technology can produce everything a consumer could ever want in a phone; already it has led to cell phone microphones, autofocus actuators, BAW filters and duplexers, projectors, inclinometers, pressure sensors, and pico-projectors.
It’s hard to imagine what else could possibly be crammed into one small phone, yet researchers are constantly finding more ways to pack MEMS applications into cell phones while at the same time making those phones smaller and smaller.
This shows a rising trend in petite, sophisticated electronics manufacturers who want MEMS accelerometers and other high-tech devices for their products. With the touch-based system that MEMS makes possible and that millions of consumers have now experienced through the iPhone, this kind of performance is expected from newer phones.
Thanks to Apple’s success story, Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and LG have all realized the importance of the MEMS device and each manufacturer has released several new models that make use of this new technology.
MEMS chips are great for the “wow” factor of a phone because they make handheld devices seem “smart,” allowing the user to interact completely with his or her phone or palm pilot. In 2008, only 10% of cell phones had MEMS capabilities.
Now, in 2009, that number has risen to 20%, or in other words one out of every five phones; analysts anticipate that by 2010 no less than one out of every three phones will incorporate MEMS “smart” technology as an integral part of its design. If MEMS technology catches on faster, however, this number could rise until virtually every phone or handheld device will have to include MEMS technology in order to be competitive.
All this burgeoning development leads to big profits for those involved in MEMS research and production. It is anticipated that MEMS, along with its sister field of nanotechnology, will provide more jobs than possibly any other area in the next 10 to 15 years.
Nanotech has the potential to revolutionize the economy; it promises big money in research, production, and marketing. Advertising specialists expect that the mobile phone market alone will reach $1.6 billion in pure sales by 2013. This makes nanotechnology and its MEMS offshoot the safest bet for investors and industry workers in the near future.