Revolutionary technology for manufacturing micro-scale devices

08 January 2010

An array of piezoelectric micro-valve components fabricated at the 50mm wafer-scale.  These are smart materials that can change their shape when an electrical signal is applied. Their total thickness is around 100microns

Cranfield University has developed new technology that could significantly reduce the manufacturing cost of complex micro-mechanical and micro-optical devices.

The project, part of a €3.2million research consortium entitled Q2M (Quality to Micro) supported by the European Union, addressed some of the key issues with existing micro-fabrication processes which are limited by the conflicting requirements of different materials.

"Standard micro-fabrication techniques are often incompatible with high quality transducer materials such as shape memory alloys and functional ceramics," said Stephen Wilson, Senior Research Fellow in Microsystems Technology at Cranfield University.

"This is one of the major bottlenecks for the development of novel micro-scale systems. The new technology enables multi-material devices to be made that do not conform to the usual silicon MEMS stereotype. It will bring down the cost of genuinely new systems considerably."

The new methods can be used in the manufacture of a myriad of components and systems ranging in size from a few millimetres to a few 100s of nanometres. Applications include newly emerging technologies for personal healthcare such as biomedical devices that can diagnose disease and electronically administer drugs, electronic noses to sniff out explosives or dangerous chemicals and environmental control systems for personal healthcare. The technology also has the potential to open up new applications in communications as it offers the ability to incorporate previously incompatible non-silicon materials into radio-frequency circuits, thereby enhancing performance and capability.

In the same project, Dr. Paul Kirby collaborating with the IBM Research Centre in Zurich and the research establishment VTT in Finland, demonstrated that a 1 micron thick layer of piezoelctric material could be incorporated into radio-frequency micro-switches such as those found in mobile phone systems.

"This is a significant achievement that could open up new application areas in high-speed telecommunications" Dr. Kirby says.

The Q2M Consortium, a three year Strategically Targeted Research Project (STREP) supported under the European Union 6th Framework project, comprised 12 academic partners and industrial companies engaged in technology development. The group also included a number of technology end-users to ensure the work addressed real industrial needs. The technologies developed through Q2M have subsequently been used to produce micro-valves, silicon micro-mirror arrays and radio frequency (RF) micro-components.

Cranfield University is made up of the following schools: Cranfield Health, School of Management, School of Applied Sciences, School of Engineering, and Cranfield Defence and Security at Shrivenham.

The image shows an array of piezoelectric micro-valve components fabricated at the 50mm wafer-scale. These are smart materials that can change their shape when an electrical signal is applied. Their total thickness is around 100microns (twice the width of a human hair).


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