Mighty MEMS

Microtechnology brings much more to the table than its size.

By Kathleen Kocks

Julie Woodford

Housed at Tompkins Hall within GW’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Institute of MEMS and VLSI Technologies is participating in an industrial revolution that is fundamentally changing the electromechanical world. Breakthrough research and developments here are inventing micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS)—machines that are infinitesimally small, extremely smart, and rapidly becoming as ubiquitous as computer chips.

MEMS is considered an enabling technology that is creating new products and capabilities for nearly every industrial area. These devices can perform a seemingly infinite number of optical, electrical, computational, thermal, mechanical, hydraulic, or pneumatic tasks—and more. More than 10 times smaller than a human hair’s diameter and typically embedded onto a computer chip, MEMS devices have the intelligence to collect and process information, determine what to do, and send electronic signals to effect the action.

Where can MEMS devices can be used? Virtually anyplace. Prevalent applications today include read/write magnetic heads for computer hard drives, inkjet printer micro-nozzles, airbag system accelerometers, tire-pressure sensors, micro-mirror switches, blood pressure sensors, wireless devices, and more.

One exciting area ripe for MEMS is the biomedicine field. In the future, MEMS-based biosensors will be small enough to be inserted in the body to measure such factors as blood pressure and enzyme levels.

Julie Woodford


According to a 2004 survey by the MEMS Industry Group MIG, the major revenue streams for MEMS devices by 2007 will be micro-fluidics (27 percent), inertial sensors (22 percent), optical MEMS (22 percent), pressure sensors (11 percent), other sensors (10 percent), other actuators (5 percent), and radio frequency MEMS (3 percent). It is also estimated that about 1.6 MEMS devices are already in service for every one person in the United States.

Products being developed at GW’s MEMS institute will increase that number. One development, funded in part by a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory grant, is a MEMS device developed by recent GW doctoral engineering graduate Ioana Voiculescu, DSci ’05. The device, for which a patent is being sought, can sniff out various chemicals that even a bloodhound’s nose would miss. A prime application for this unique MEMS is detection of molecular traces of explosive chemicals or nerve gases, far better than current state-of-the-art equipment.

“We are also working on MEMS devices for mobile phones and for HF communications; the MEMS device could replace quartz digital crystals that are currently used in phones and radios. We are presently testing and hoping to get another patent for a MEMS device being developed by two or three students; it would be used to make the cell phone smaller or more capable of performing more functions. I’m very excited about these products and am hoping to get some of them commercialized,” says Mona E. Zaghloul, the institute’s founder and professor within GW’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department within the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

“We have many other types of developments underway. All our research is supported by grants, and we are fortunate to have research funding from several outside sources. Some of our supporters include the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the NRL, and NASA. I also have many grant proposals out right now. For one grant, we are planning to develop MEMS power sensors to be used on electrical power grids. These would be able to measure power loads, determine if the system is about to fail, and then prevent it from doing so.”

Such a device would prevent electrical blackouts similar to the 2003 blackout across the U.S. Northeast and southeastern Canada. The blackout affected about 50 million people, forced nuclear power plants in New York and Ohio to close, and nearly crippled the region’s air traffic control system, according to Globalsecurity.org.

Established in 1997 primarily through Zaghloul’s efforts, GW’s MEMS institute concentrates the University’s research efforts in MEMS and in VLSI (very-large scale integration—i.e., integrated circuits with more than 100,000 transistors). Equally important, the institute serves as an umbrella organization for its faculty and graduate students. MEMS is a multidisciplinary science, and the institute’s faculty and students come from different departments within GW, such as chemistry and electrical, mechanical, and biomedical engineering areas.

“We have five faculty members and about 15 graduate students at the institute; the institute gives them a place to do research, as well as to bond, exchange ideas, and learn from the work of others. The institute also houses all our published work, and our members have access to it. Research is done at Tomkins Hall, and we have access to labs outside the campus, such as facilities at NIST, NASA, or NRL,” Zaghloul explains.

Zaghloul’s job as the institute’s director is to coordinate the research and promote the institute to others. It’s hard to imagine a better champion for the cause. Zaghloul earned her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Egypt’s Cairo University and her postgraduate degrees at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Her Waterloo degrees include master’s degrees in electrical engineering and in computer science and applied analysis, followed by a PhD in electrical engineering in 1975. She was the first woman to earn an engineering PhD at Waterloo.

In 1980, she joined GW’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, became a full professor in 1984, and chaired the department from 1994 until 1998. In all three cases, she was the first woman in these GW positions.

Mona E. Zaghloul, professor in GW’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is the founder of the Institute of MEMS and VLSI Technologies.

Julie Woodford


Zaghloul is also a Fellow in the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and in 1999 she received IEEE’s Jubilee Golden Medal for outstanding contribution to IEEE Circuits and Systems. Zaghloul has published more than 250 technical papers, co-authored one book, and contributed to several others. She has also supervised more than 30 master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. She is well known for her dedication to teaching and is an especially strong proponent of engineering education for women.

In 1998, Zaghloul pioneered the teaching of MEMS at GW by introducing two graduate courses. Her expertise in MEMS was kindled during her work as a faculty researcher at NIST, a job that began in 1980 and continues today. It was around 1989 or 1990 when she turned her focus to MEMS.

“At the time, I had a very bright and creative group of GW senior undergraduate students who also worked at NIST and together we established the MEMS work at NIST, while also developing some very nice sensors and MEMS devices,” Zaghloul says. “Those students have since been very successful in the MEMS field; some have their own companies, one now works at Stanford University, another at the University of California-Berkeley, another is with Bosch, and yet another is at NASA Goddard.”

Opportunity in the MEMS field is destined to flourish. According to the MEMS Industry Group, the MEMS commercial market value was worth $3.9 billion in 2001 and was expected to exceed $8 billion by 2007. Some of the more optimistic industry analysts foresee a trillion-dollar market within the next decade. The appeal is connected to the wide range of MEMS applications and the ease of their manufacture.

“The construction of MEMS is based upon the knowledge we gained in making the computer microchip,” Zaghloul explains. “That technology opened the door to build smaller and smaller devices, at nanoscale sizes. Made of silicon, MEMS are very tiny structures that can be only microns in size.

Ioana Voiculescu, DSci ’05, has created a MEMS device that can sniff out chemicals that even a bloodhound’s nose would miss.

Julie Woodford

“The technology makes it possible to build very, very small transistors. You can not only build circuits with MEMS, but you can also build micro-motors. Any type of device you see around you, you can build on a very, very small scale using MEMS technology. As you can imagine, the potential applications for MEMS are then very diverse and numerous.”

MEMS devices are very inexpensive to build, because silicon is cheap and they can easily be mass-produced. They also consume very low power, but deliver excellent performance. MEMS experts say these small devices often perform better and more efficiently than larger products doing the same tasks.

“Designers have also gotten very good about designing MEMS devices to be smart,” Zaghloul adds. “Through circuitry, we can make them gather, analyze, and transmit information to us. They can send a signal to other devices and tell them what to do. They can sense their environment, be it chemical, temperature, or otherwise. They can tell you your blood pressure, whether your blood is diabetic, or whether there are bacteria or chemicals present in it.”

“As we move forward in MEMS research and development, more and more funding agencies are now asking for even smaller MEMS. The future is taking us toward nanoscale sizes that are 100 times smaller than a human hair. We are talking about very, very small machines that could be used in many, many more applications.

“In the next age, we will find these MEMS machines everywhere. Sometimes when I think about the future of MEMS, I am reminded of that 1960’s movie ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ where a small submarine and its crew were shrunk to microscopic size, then put into a man’s body to correct a medical problem. With nanoscale MEMS, these devices will be able to do that kind of work in many different kinds of ways.”

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