Clark's Self-Calibrating MEMS Design  (Source: Purdue University)
New tech could mean much more accurate nanosensors for space exploration and more

Scientists around the world are hard at work on technologies that are measured on the nanoscale. The problem for many areas of research is that there are no sensors accurate enough to measure such small distances and forces that are common in the nano world.

Researchers at Purdue University are working on a breakthrough process that will allow tiny micro electromechanical systems (MEMS) to calibrate themselves. The technology has the potential to usher in a new generation of precise sensors for all manner of uses ranging from medical testing and diagnosis to crime scene forensics. Part of the problem researchers are tackling is the inability of current systems to accurately measure distances and forces that are at play in the microscopic and nanoscopic world.

Purdue assistant professor of electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering Jason Vaughn Clark said, "In the everyday macroscopic world, we can accurately measure distance and mass because we have well-known standards such as rulers or weights that we use to calibrate devices that measure distances or forces. But for the micro- or nanoscopic worlds, there have been no standards and no practical ways for measuring very small distances or forces."

According to the researchers, there are various techniques used currently to measure the force and movement of tiny nano objects, but those techniques can be off as much as 10% because of uncertainties in what is being measured like variations in microstructure geometry and variations with fabrication processes.

Clark added, "A 10 percent change in width can cause a 100 percent change in a microstructure's stiffness. Process variations have made it difficult for researchers to accurately predict the performance of MEMS."

Clark has created a new technology he has dubbed electro micro metrology or EMM. EMM is allowing researchers and engineers to take variations of the material being studied into account to predict the performance of the MEMS accurately. Clark says that using his technology a MEMS can self-calibrate for the first time.

The reason self-calibration of this type is so important is perhaps easiest to understand when considered in the realm of space exploration. Clark surmised, "Say you have a MEMS sensor in the environment or on a space probe. You want it to be able to wake up and recalibrate itself to account for changes resulting from temperature differences, changes in the gas or liquid ambient, or other conditions that might affect its properties. That's when self-calibration technology is needed."

Clark also plans to use his technology to increase the accuracy of atomic force microscopes (AFM), which are used in nanotechnology to measure small displacements and forces. The EMM technology is being used to help those operating the AFMs to calibrate them accurately.

Clark also plans to use the technology to create a miniature AFM-on-a-chip that can calibrate itself. This will not only shrink the size of the AFM, but make it much cheaper as well. He noted, "Such an advent should open the door to the nanoworld to a much larger number of groups or individuals."

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