Small Gets BIG: Nanotech and MEMS Bring Tiny Tech Solutions to CE Products

nano big tech


Even nanophysicists need to have a little fun,” IBM said when it released A Boy and His Atom, which the company calls “the world’s smallest movie.” The 96-second video opus about a stick figure character named Adam and his pet atom consists entirely of 5,000 individual atoms, which are manipulated into an animated story.

The black-and-white video shows scientists’ rapidly evolving ability to bring tiny technology into daily use.

Some of the sub-micro-sized systems are already being used in features we take for granted, like 3D animation and the way mobile handsets can “shift direction” as their screens are rotated. Other applications include massively improved portable battery power, the highest-resolution video displays and advanced health and fitness monitoring using motion tracking sensors.

Many more sub-microscopic concepts are in the pipeline, much of it still in academic labs and the workshops of specialized component innovators.

But there is also activity on the corporate roadmaps of global companies such as IBM, Intel, LG, Samsung and scores of other global powerhouses. Nanotechnology and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) represent two approaches to creating or improving CE products. Although they use significantly different sciences (physics/chemistry and mechanical engineering), nanotech and MEMS share several characteristics, notably their huge potential to use tiny tech for big results.

“From a computer speed standpoint, nanotech is already playing a role in chip design,” says Todd Kuiken, senior research associate at the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN). Although much nanotechnology research is proprietary, PEN has identified more than 1,300 products using nanotech. Its inventory study found a 521 percent increase in nanotech products from 2006 (when the study began) through 2011 (the most recent data).

The largest category of nanotech products is in the health and fitness industry, with electronics and computers—including a display subcategory—coming next. Other nanotech ventures range from agribusiness and environment to clothing, appliances and medical devices. With the accelerating pace of nanotech research, Kuiken points out that PEN (which is part of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, established as part of the Smithsonian Institution) is looking at public policy, societal, environmental health and safety issues that affect the fast-moving sector. The Wilson Center is also the home of a Science and Technology Innovation Program, which often overlaps with the nanotech projects.

Like other evolving technologies, nanotech comes in many varieties. For example, Sony recently introduced the first TV sets to use “quantum dots” (QDs), which are nanosized crystals of semiconductor material. The technology produces colors that are more vibrant than those generated by liquid crystal displays (LCDs). Although the video display units of other leading TV manufacturers are working on different nanotech options, QD promoters (mainly based in Europe) are extolling the capability of QDs as light emitting diode (OLED) displays. QD’s characteristics include flexibility for all size screens, including large panel format TVs, and longer lifetimes compared to today’s OLED technology.

At the Same Time: MEMS

Separately, MEMS development continues to get bigger— even as its devices are shrinking. For example, a new MEMS chip from Kionix Inc. is the size of Lincoln’s nose on a penny (about two square millimeters wide and less than one millimeter thick), says Ed Brachocki, the company’s marketing director. He says that MEMS technologies are being used in “very small, high-performance devices that consume very little power, are relatively inexpensive and can be manufactured in very high volumes.”

And they are very reliable. “They contribute in a meaningful way to the performance of end products,” Brachocki adds, citing the use of Kionix’s motion-sensing devices in products ranging from Barnes & Noble’s Nook and several Motorola Droid smartphone models to Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s PlayStation Move. David Almoslino, director of wireless tracking InvenSense focuses on motion tracking. Its InvenSense Platform and MotionFusion technologies are being used in CE products that require image stabilization, gesture-control and intuitive user interfaces. Its MEMS products are inside Nexus 7 and 10 tablets, Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD, Samsung’s Galaxy and Panasonic’s Lumix products, as well as a Black and Decker gyro screwdriver and Nintendo’s gaming consoles and handheld units.

“As consumers have become increasingly accustomed to motion-based applications, they have created a demand for applications that require more robust, intelligent motion processing solutions,” Almoslino adds. “Until recently, there have been challenges that inhibited the development of such solutions,” such as “accurately detecting complex motions across multiple axes and synthesizing and processing motion data into meaningful information for use in applications.”

Kionix’s Brachocki agrees, noting that “motion-based solutions are being adopted into an incredibly broad range of products,” particularly health and fitness applications.

“We will see more complete solutions in the future that include more sensor types, plus complimentary technologies, such as wireless communication and higher level processing more tightly coupled to the MEMS devices,” Brachocki says. “That will help increase the capability of a device while potentially shortening design cycles. All marketing at InvenSense Inc., another MEMS provider, characterizes his company as an “ingredient supplier.” He cites a recent iSuppli forecast that predicts a 9.7 percent compound annual growth rate for MEMS devices between now and 2016 (more than double the semiconductor industry growth rate), leading to a market of 13.7 billion MEMS devices in products in three years.

Almoslino says MEMS products include accelerometers, three-axis gyroscopes, and six-axis IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) devices which themselves integrate accelerometers and gyroscopes. In addition to mobile handsets and media tablets, MEMS devices will soon be tucked inside cameras, remote controllers, toys, standalone projectors and yet-to-be imagined products.

“The overall market for these devices within these products will move from individual, discrete devices to integrated multi-axis devices such as 6-9-axis solutions,” Almoslino says. More, he says, “further applications will put MEMS into automotive navigation, platform stabilization, robotics, unmanned system control and many other products.” that will increase the overall adoption of the technology.” Another European company that is focused on MEMS sensors for 3D motion tracking is Dutch-based Xsens. In May, the company, which is focused on health, fitness and entertainment, released a development kit specifically for system integrators working on wireless orientation tracking.

Hein Beute, the company’s California-based U.S. product manager, characterizes Xsens’ focus as “developing intellectual property for a whole suite of human movement.” The company has worked with Nike, Under Armour and other fitness brands and is now looking at the games sector where MEMS “sensor and fusion” technologies meet evolving industry requirements, as Beute describes it. He observes that MEMS devices can be used to combine human motion, fused with a biomechanical model. “Anywhere you can apply sensors to a human body, you can develop a consumer product,” he says.

At the 2013 International CES®, Xsens unveiled a consumer version of its motion capture technology, which Beute calls “a big step since we worked with bigger, more accurate consumer- grade MEMS products.” He says such devices are “cheaper with the same accuracy” and in sizeable volumes the devices’ cost increases the value. One of the attractions of MEMS as well as nanotech is the technology’s power-saving capabilities. “MEMS sensor fusion offers the leading approach to meeting or exceeding power, performance and cost requirements in heterogeneous embedded systems, including mobile handsets and tablets,” says Karen Lightman, executive director of the MEMS Industry Group. She says, “MEMS sensors are critical to the Internet of Things,” and embedded systems designers are “increasingly hungry” for information about sensor fusion tools and techniques. The MEMS Industry Group has showcased its members’ capabilities at the International CES for the past two years, citing increasing attention to the features that the tiny devices enable.

Keeping Track

While CE products play a significant role in nanotech development, the opportunities extend in so many directions that the federal government established a National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2000. NNI coordinates the nanotech research and related activities at 27 agencies. Public-private sector approaches also track and encourage nanotech development. Many industry experts say nanotech is becoming increasingly vital as silicon-based computer chips are expected to reach their limits within a decade, hence the perceived value of alternative tiny processing tools such as nanotubes, the cylindrical carbon molecules that are at the core of nanotech development. Recently Semiconductor Research Corp. joined the ongoing project of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop compact models of emerging nanoelectronic devices that could be used in next generation CE products.

This project targets nano engineered electronic device simulation (NEEDS), which is part of the larger NNI project called the Network for Computational Nanotechnology. NCN offers researchers tools to explore nanoscale phenomena through theory, modeling and simulation. By enabling the simulation of circuits and systems, compact models connect nanomaterials and devices to potential circuit applications that are simulated with SPICE (Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis).

Despite the alphabet soup of acronyms, the collaborative activity across scientific disciplines as well as industrial objectives underscores the big visions that government and business are putting onto small products.

Research in Universities

For example, in the past few months, Stanford University scientists identified a process that would extend by a factor of ten the lifetime of lithium sulfur batteries, using hollow carbon nanofibers. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Illinois recently unveiled microbatteries that can drive the development of new applications in compact CE devices. The lead scientist William King called it a “whole new way to think about batteries,” emphasizing that as CE devices have gotten smaller, “the battery has lagged far behind.” He said the new batteries could enable radio signals to travel 30 times farther than today’s technologies. The NSF and the Air Force have supported this project.

At the University of California Riverside, researchers have developed a process to incorporate the primary properties of nanotubes into new materials that could replace silicon-based electronics technology. Nanotubes are stronger than steel and can potentially process information faster while using less energy. The research determined that blending ionic liquid (a kind of liquid salt) into the nanotubes affected the optical properties, changing the transparency of the tubes. The augmented nanotubes could amplify the capacity 100-fold.

Robert Haddon, director of UC Riverside’s Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, says, “The challenge is to harness their [nanotubes] outstanding properties,” he told a physics industry journal. “They won’t be available at Home Depot next week, but there is continuing progress in the field.”

Together, nanotech and MEMS are helping the industries get big by getting small. – See more at:

Thank you, TiA

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