Micro-Electromechanical Systems Become Mainstream

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Micro-Electromechanical Systems Become Mainstream

It turns out Walt Disney was right.  It is a small world after all.  At least, the world where micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) operate, is very small.  Their impact, however, is quite large and growing rapidly.

The idea of MEMS is not new.  They are created by combining several other technologies, including sensors, actuators, mechanical elements, and electronics.  What has changed over the years is their size — they’ve gotten smaller and smaller.  At the same time, their capabilities have increased greatly. 

Today, MEMS are revolutionizing nearly every product category by bringing together silicon-based micro-electronics with micro-machining technology. 

Let’s examine some of the newer MEMS applications, which illustrate some of the benefits these devices are now delivering and how they truly are transforming just about every industry.  As a result, our lives are being enriched in ways that were unimaginable just 20 years ago.

Just consider the field of medicine.  As recently reported in MIT Technology Review, Medtronic, the world’s leading medical-device maker, is working on a pacemaker smaller than a Tic Tac mint; it should be available within five years.1 

By contrast, current pacemakers are about the size of a silver dollar.  A key benefit of this greatly reduced size is that the device would eliminate lead wires since it could be positioned right where the electricity is needed.  These wires cause a pacemaker to require greater power; plus, if they fail, there can be serious complications.

Another cardiovascular application was highlighted in a study at the University of Southern California.2  It showed that a MEMS thermal sensor can detect the earliest stages of atherosclerosis, a form of cholesterol build-up on the insides of arteries. 

The sensor moves through the arteries using an angiogram catheter.  If it detects a slight change in a voltage signal in an area of the artery that otherwise shows no clinical signs of atherosclerosis, it notifies the doctors. 

Once this area of the artery is identified, the doctor can decide if the region warrants treatment or not.  Early treatment can prevent future heart attacks and strokes. 

For diabetics, there’s potential good news coming out of the University of Calgary.  The school’s MEMS laboratory has patented a skin patch that offers a less-invasive, and therefore less painful, way to take blood samples.3 

Called the “Electronic Mosquito,” it consists of four electronically controlled micro-needles that only penetrate deep enough to draw blood, but not enough to hit a nerve...

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