Device Futures

Biochips, MEM’s, Microfluidics, Optics, Lab-on-a-Chip Systems, Microrobotics, and Beyond

Imagine combining the capabilites of a TV, computer and phone with a car, or perhaps an engine to drive your car that is organic? The brave new world of microdevices from pacemakers today to neural biochips embedded into the brain, for giving memories back is tomorrow.

In work that can potentially lead to a real-life Dick Tracy watch, researchers have built a tiny microphone on a silicon chip and have made significant progress towards building a low-power, single-chip radio. These would both be important components of a Dick Tracy watch. Using silicon micromachining, a state-of-the-art approach for making silicon materials with microscopic features, Peter Gammel and his colleagues at Bell Labs/Lucent Technologies in New Jersey built a microphone on a silicon integrated circuit, shown above. The base has marks with an approximate size of just 100 microns (0.1millimeters).

Dramatic advances in micro-scale fluidics technology have changed the concept of what a “laboratory” is or looks like. What once filled an entire room with complex tubing, valves, glassware, etc., can now be shrunk down to fit on a chip.

Complete “Lab on a Chip” systems are now being manufactured in which an entire biochemistry laboratory can be miniaturized into a device about the size of a credit card. (Orchid Biocomputer)

Extraordinary advances in micro scale fabrication techniques, materials science, and assembly automation has opened up a virtual “Pandora’s Box” of possibilities. Extending far beyond just merely creating the next version of electronic computer or memory chips, integrated microsystems technologies have accelerated a vast array of applications, such as biotechnology, medicine, robotics, aerospace, telecommunications, automotive, and many others. These technologies are rapidly being transformed in ways that could hardly be imagined except in the anals of science fiction . . . only now they have become science, and business fact.

Complex micro-mechanical systems, complete with gears, motors, and all of the components of an entire machine, are now being shrunk down to devices small enough to fit into the head of a pin, and beyond. Here, a maurauding spider mite is getting a gander on one of the latest micro-device systems being developed at Sandia National Laboratory. Micro-mirror arrays, originally developed at Texas Instruments, are currently being applied to next generation display systems, optical switching components, and a plethora of developments just beginning to emerge into the military and commercial markets. (Texas Instruments)

Electron-microscope image of the world’s smallest guitar, based roughly on the design for the Fender Stratocaster, a popular electric guitar. Its length is 10 millionths of a meter– approximately the size of a red blood cell and about 1/20th the width of a single hu- man hair. Its strings have a width of about 50 billionths of a meter (the size of approx- imately 100 atoms). Plucking the tiny strings would produce a high-pitched sound at the inaudible frequency of ap- proximately 10 megahertz. (Dustin W. Carr and Harold G. Craighead, Cornell.)

Already in commercial production, electronically programmable biochips offer applications ranging from medical diagnostics devices to biolgical computing. In the background is a silicon wafer fresh off the assembly line, with dozens of complete biochips ready to be cut and packaged for waiting customers.