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RIT is breaking ground in microsystems research

Smaller, faster, cheaper, better.

These words are a driving force in research and development - and with good reason. The computer revolution of the past 30 years taught us that the power to change the world often comes in tiny packages.

Above: RIT's microelectronic engineering lab, a foundation of the university's microsystems research efforts, is being renovated to allow fabrication of microelectromechanical devices.
(Photo by Forest McMullin)
Today, engineers and scientists are learning how to build probes, sensors, switches, engines and other machines small enough to fit through the eye of a needle. Like computer chips, these devices are produced using silicon-wafer techniques. Unlike computer chips, which are purely electronic, the tiny machines can contain microscopic gears, levers and pulleys, mirrors, lenses and other components. The new generation of microdevices will be able to sense, act and communicate. The applications are virtually limitless, ranging from communications to transportation, from consumer devices to medicine.

Imagine a pocket-size device that functions as a cell phone, personal computer, TV and global position tracker. Or wearable medical monitors that administer medication as needed. Or sensors the size of a worker's button capable of identifying toxic chemicals.

"Micromachines will become ubiquitous," predicts First in Class Director Donald Boyd. "They will find their way into devices that haven't even been dreamed of yet."

Microsystems are a key research area for RIT. Some three dozen faculty members from several colleges are working in various aspects of this effort, which has been identified as one of the university's First in Class Initiatives. In May, RIT's efforts received a huge boost with the award of $14 million through the New York Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research (NYSTAR) to create a Strategically Targeted Academic Research (STAR) Center (see story, page 11).

The timing couldn't be better. The world is poised on the verge of a microsystems revolution that could dwarf the development of the microprocessor. The MEMS Exchange, a manufacturing umbrella organization, is predicting annual sales of $100 billion in micromachines by the end of the decade.

As director of the microelectronic engineering lab, Karl Hirschman will oversee its transformation into an advanced microsystems research facility.
In truth, micromachines are pretty big already. Although consumers may be unaware of their presence, microelectromechanical systems MEMS are used in many products, notably automobile air bag activators, ink-jet printer heads and high-end projectors. Delphi Automotive Systems, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Texas Instruments and Xerox are among the many players involved in highly competitive research and development in this arena. At this point, no company has cornered the overall market.

Microsystems research is a natural area for RIT involvement. One strength is RIT's longstanding leadership in microelectronics. MEMS devices are an extension of integrated circuit manufacturing techniques.

"We understand much of the basic technology of microsystems already," says Harvey Palmer, dean of the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, noting that RIT's microelectronic engineering department has operated a chip-making facility since 1986. "The challenge is to use this technological know-how to develop valuable products. RIT has an advantage in this, as well: The university has a long tradition of working with industry partners on practical uses for new technology."

"We take research and stretch it to enable new products," explains Paul Petersen, director of the design, development and manufacturing area of RIT's First in Class effort. "That's what we're geared to do."

William Grande, assistant professor of microelectronic engineering, is part of a team working on a project called Advanced Optical Components for Silicon Bench Technology.
In the microsystems area, partnerships are already formed. RIT is working with companies including Kodak, Xerox, Corning, and others as well as with other universities and government agencies. The industry partners, in conjunction with New York state, are working to establish a Rochester Center for Excellence in Photonics and Microsystems. The research would focus on optics, fiber optics and photonics.

"Given its rich and relevant portfolio of advanced technologies from microelectronics to reliability engineering to statistical process control and integrated manufacturing systems, RIT forms a master link in the chain of universities across the Empire State that will collaborate through Infotonics," says David R. Smith, director of production systems engineering and technology, Imaging Materials and Media Platform Center, Eastman Kodak Co.

As with all of the First in Class Initiatives, students are working with the MEMS researchers, thus the university's academic program is enhanced. Under development is a new Ph.D. program in microsystems. This program, modeled after RIT's unique imaging sciences Ph.D. program, would be highly multidisciplinary, involving virtually every engineering and science discipline.

Meanwhile, a state-of-the-art facility for microsystems research is being designed. Contiguous with and complementary to the existing microelectronic engineering lab, it will provide researchers with the ability to fabricate MEMS devices. Construction is expected to begin in spring 2002.

Distinguished Researcher Michael Potter is at work on new approaches to radio-frequency devices that could vastly improve cell-phone performance.
"The expansion will provide capabilities new to RIT," says Karl Hirschman, director of the lab and a 1990 microelectronic engineering graduate. "The renovation also will enhance our current capabilities. We'll continue to provide outstanding educational opportunities to our students, as well as fill the needs of the researchers."

RIT is poised to surf the crest of this promising new wave of technology. It's likely to be an exciting ride and a long one.

As Paul Petersen notes, "Microsystems promise to have an impact comparable to the integrated circuit. In 10 to 20 years, virtually all products will employ a microdevice. It's a trite saying, but we will be limited only by our imagination."

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