Two new scientists expand MEMS research capabilities at UMaine
About the Photo:
Bioengineer Rosemary Smith and biochemist Scott Collins have a
combined 50 years of experience in MEMS, working in government,
academic and industrial labs. Both recently came to UMaine from the
University of California – Davis.
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Smaller. Smaller still. Microscopic, nano (one-billionth) scale. Complex
machines no bigger than a grain of sand. Research instruments that can
It's tiny technology that's set to have a big impact on our macro world
within 10 years.
"This is a new chapter in microelectronics," says bioengineer Rosemary
Smith, a leading researcher in the field for the past 20 years. "More
and more, traditional microelectronics manufacturing in this country is
going overseas because of the excessive costs of facilities and
personnel (here). That happens when manufacturing like this has matured,
reached its limit. What's new is nanotechnology and MEMS (microelectromechanical
systems). They are the next big design and manufacturing fields in this
MEMS technology, which has evolved out of the microelectronics industry
in the past 30 years, essentially shrinks a machine or instrument onto a
silicon chip, often adding "smart" capabilities. These micromachines
combine electrical and mechanical components, enabling them to gather
and communicate information, and, as the processed information warrants,
take action. In addition, their size makes them inexpensive and easy to
mass-produce. Microsystems can be utilized individually or in an array
for micro or macro applications.
A commercially successful example of MEMS technology is found in vehicle
air bags, where microsensors, called accelerometers, detect a collision
and send an electrical signal to the inflation device. In inkjet
printers, miniature devices act as actuators by responding to electronic
signals to regulate ink flow. Digital light processing technology in
high-density televisions and projectors provides sharp, bright images
using a DMD (digital micromirror device) chip with more than
1 million mirrors, each a fraction of the width of a human hair.
"The field has gone through cycles," says Smith. "Initially, the idea
was to build microscopic intelligent sensors by merging integrated
circuit technology with materials that provide sensing capability. In
the biomedical arena, the focus was on implanted devices that were small
and intelligent. But after five years of academic and industrial
efforts, there still were many problems, both with biocompatibility, and
because the integration of materials and technologies was too
complicated. Consequently, there was a big shift in focus from doing
smart sensors to the more basic science on material interfaces. That's
where research facilities like LASST (the University of Maine's
Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology) picked up.
"On the silicon end," Smith says, "the shift was made to hybrid
instruments, with sensors and integrated circuitry on separate chips.
Then, with the genomics revolution, bench-top instruments and
microfluidics came in. New materials have developed in the past 10 years
that are now sparking a return to implantable and biomedical systems."
In the world of medicine, MEMS is already found in some minimally
invasive blood glucose testing devices using biosensor technology. Now
in development are prototypes of the artificial pancreas and artificial
retina, both involving "machines" and electronics that coexist on
silicon chips. One of the biggest feats ahead for nanotechnology:
personal, high-speed gene sequencing.
Smith and biochemist Scott Collins, who met while doing research on
chemical sensors at the University of Utah, have a combined 50 years of
experience in MEMS technology, working in government, academic and
industrial laboratories. Both came to UMaine from the University of
California – Davis, where they directed the Microinstruments and Systems
Laboratory. Their research focused on chemical and physical biomedical
microsensors, and technology development for analytical microinstruments
— tools that allow scientists to work "at the same scale as the
biology," says Collins.
"Everybody wants something to help their research, and we hope to build
those instruments. We'll be designing research prototypes at low volume
and cost," says Collins. "Micro-technology development is our niche."
In some ways, says Collins, "it's like taking existing instruments and
shrinking them as small as possible."
Smith and Collins were attracted to Maine by the possibility of doing
research and development to address the needs of scientists at Jackson
Laboratory in Bar Harbor. In addition, Fairchild Semiconductor
International, headquartered in South Portland, announced in 2001 that
it is licensed to offer the SUMMiT micromachining process. SUMMiT is a
multi-level MEMS technology created by Sandia National Laboratories,
funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The focus by Smith and Collins on silicon-based microelectronic
technology complements the material science research of UMaine's
Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology. For more than two
decades, UMaine researchers have conducted research in high-tech areas
related to surfaces, interfaces and thin film materials. Their work in
advanced materials ranges from basic science to applied technology in
such areas as microelectronics and chemical sensors.
"It's unusual to find this broad scope of technology in one place,"
Smith says. "That means we have a large toolbox for any instrument we
want to build."
LASST, housed in the Sawyer Environmental Research Center on campus,
will have a new home in the $18 million Engineering and Science Research
Building now under construction. As part of the new facility, Smith and
Collins are designing a research laboratory customized for the
development of microinstrumentation. Construction is expected to be
completed this spring. Smith and Collins will spend a year preparing it
"The facility is being designed to accommodate a wide range of
micromachining and materials. That will be unusual," says Smith.
"Usually, universities have facilities modeled after technologies on
either end of the spectrum — integrated circuit or a non-silicon
material. We're designing a lab to keep the small scale with high
The researchers will be supervising graduate students in the lab. The
hope is to ultimately develop labs and courses for undergraduates in a
feeder program for this field of research.
"There's a lot of talent at UMaine and in the vicinity," Smith says.
"Given the facility we envision, we hope our research will be a resource
for small start-up and spin-off companies. This will be an incubator for
them; there's no other facility with this technology within 200 miles."
Today, the trend in microinstrumentation is the same as it was with
computers, Smith points out. At one time, they were relegated to
scientific research institutions; now they're in everyone's home. In the
near future, analysis tools found in clinical labs or big, expensive
facilities will find their way into the home so people can analyze their
environment on a routine basis. Microinstruments will provide more
capability to the individual than he or she ever thought possible. It's
like 20 years ago; how could most people have known what it's like to
have a laptop?
"The hope is that it ultimately means an improved quality of life and
better health because of new, improved and widely available technology.
It's what we're striving for," Smith says.
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.