Published: Sept. 8, 1999

Advances in computing and other technology have made the old axiom, "bigger is better," obsolete. Phenomenal miniaturization over the last few decades has led to new products and capabilities once thought impossible.

Emerging from this trend is an entirely new discipline known as micro-electro-mechanical systems, or MEMS, which holds promise for even greater advances in transportation, communications, medicine, robotics and defense systems.

Faculty members in CU-Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science have been awarded two new grants for MEMS research totaling $1.9 million over the next three years.

Also known as micro-machines, MEMS are miniaturized devices, smaller than the width of a human hair, which can be manufactured using batch processing techniques at great energy and cost savings. Simple MEMS devices can be built to activate an airbag in the event of a car collision or to rotate thousands of mirrors in a digital camera to transform a fuzzy image into a crisp one. More importantly, MEMS can do this with greater speed and precision than larger machines because of their smaller mass.

"MEMS are like tiny robots that could fine-tune your cell phone to reduce interference or perform other tasks at a cost of less than one cent each," said Y.C. Lee, professor of mechanical engineering and acting director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Packaging of Microwave, Optical and Digital Electronics (CAMPmode).

Envisioning a future in which such devices are pervasive, Lee said: "MEMS are expected to have an impact comparable to that of the Internet, revolutionizing our daily lives in the 21st century."

For example, MEMS have the potential to advance the field of medicine by providing the tools to alert people to impending health problems and even to respond to head them off.

An interdisciplinary research center on MicroElectronic Devices in Cardiovascular Applications, or MEDICA, teams researchers from the College of Engineering and CU's Health Sciences Center to develop MEMS for improved diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases. Under the direction of mechanical engineering Professor Roop L. Mahajan and Dr. Lilliam Valdes-Cruz of The Children's Hospital, researchers are working to develop micro-sensors that can measure blood pressure and flow in arteries, as well as micro-actuators that can assist blood flow and provide localized drug delivery.

The new MEMS grants, awarded to CAMPmode researchers by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, include $1 million for the development of MEMS sensors that can withstand high-temperature environments, and $900,000 to develop MEMS for programmable antenna arrays. The projects are led by mechanical engineering Professor Victor Bright and electrical and computer engineering Professor K.C. Gupta, respectively.

When added to existing funding, the grants bring MEMS research support to CAMPmode to more than $1.4 million per year. Other agencies funding the research include the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the U.S. Department of Defense.

The packaging and integration of MEMS into larger, interconnected systems with greater functionality is an emerging area of focus within CAMPmode. Faculty and students are looking at a variety of applications in optics, wireless communications, bioengineering and other areas. One idea being developed for educational purposes is a 2-square millimeter experimental module that would replace six tensile testing machines.

Because MEMS research is interdisciplinary, it involves faculty from multiple departments including mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, computer science and aerospace engineering sciences. Students in all of these departments also are involved in the research.