The University Record, September 18, 2000

Engineering receives NSF grant for wireless microsystems center

From the College of Engineering

You may never have heard of wireless integrated microsystems (WIMS), but researchers at the University are convinced that these miniature, inexpensive microsystems—about the size of a small button—have the power to dramati cally change the way we live in the years ahead.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) agrees, and announced that it has designated the University’s College of Engineering as an Engineering Research Center—a move that will result in more than $50 million in fuAnding for researchers to further explore and develop the potential benefits of WIMS.

NSF’s Lynn Preston, director of the ERC program, said, “Integration of multiple paths of research is critical for continuing progress in science, engineering and technological innovation. The NSF Engineering Research Centers partner universities and industry to provide the next generation of technology and an effective engineering work force, both of which are increasingly important to the economy and to people’s lives.”

The Center will be directed by Kensall D. Wise, the J. Reid and Polly Anderson Professor of Manufacturing Technology and professor of electrical engineering and computer science. Wise has more than 20 years experience working on microsystems.

Khalil Najafi, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of the U-M’s Solid-State Electronics Laboratory, will serve as deputy director.

What do WIMS do?

WIMS are tiny, wireless machines used to gather information from their environment, interpret the data it receives and communicate that information back to a host system.

That means these devices have the ability to smell, see, hear, feel and move—recording data and interacting with their environment. Because the devices are wireless, these devices can operate anywhere—even inside the human body. And that opens the door for a number of breakthrough developments, such as:

  • Implanting WIMS inside the human body to “eavesdrop” on what’s going on with various neural or chemical functions. Because this little device can interpret information, it could recognize an imbalance and tell the brain to respond with an appropriate chemical or electrical stimuli. What it means to you: Forget the days of hearing aids. Instead, use an implanted microsystem to treat deafness and restore hearing.

  • Using WIMS to monitor the environment. Because this little device can smell, it can detect more than 40 specific gases from the EPA’s air toxins level with part-per-billion sensitivity. What it means to you: Forget the days of relying on TV for your local weather. Instead, monitor the weather in your backyard whenever you want.

    With the designation as an Engineering Research Center, researchers at the University of Michigan will devote considerable resources over the next 11 years to turn these possibilities into reality. The University’s immediate priority is developing an rf-powered implantable microsystem that would serve as a cochlear prosthesis for the profoundly deaf. Subsequent devices would focus on treating epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.

    A second focus of researchers is a battery-powered environmental monitoring system that could monitor the weather— including temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and a host of other variables—as well detect the level of carbon monoxide in your bedroom or the amount of smoke in your kitchen.

    “We are bringing together the study of microelectromechanincal systems, microelectronics and wireless communications,” says Wise. “Our goal is to expand the capability of these tiny machines and apply the technology to improve healthcare and better our environment.”

    Last year, 89 programs at universities across the country sought the prestige—and the funding—that comes with the NSF’s designation as an Engineering Research Center (ERC). Two were selected.

    For researchers at the U-M, its designation as an ERC means immediate funding to expand its work on wireless microsystems. In the Center’s first year, it will receive more than $5 million, including $2.5 million from the NSF and more than $2 million from a group of global corporations and the state of Michigan.

    “The National Science Foundation’s investment in our work at the University of Michigan is a clear indication that wireless integrated microsystems hold tremendous benefits for consumers and industry,” says Stephen W. Director, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering. “An important aspect of the Engineering Research Center is the involvement of global corporations that will work with us to develop technologies that will be useful in an industrial setting.”

    Nearly two dozen corporations—including such recognizable names as 3M and Texas Instruments—will collaborate with the University on the development of WIMS technology.

    Each company is paying a minimum of $50,000 annually to work with the faculty and students who are developing future WIMS technology. The industrial partners get a first look at the new technology and access to intellectual property developed in the ERC.

    “The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) supports this state-of-the-art center by contributing a 10 percent match of NSF’s funds,” says Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of the MEDC. “Our assistance, along with the backing of more than 20 Michigan companies, including up-and-coming high-tech companies created from the center’s research, show how important this center is to our state. Michigan’s friendly high-tech business climate will guarantee that other companies created from the new center’s research will be nurtured and allowed to prosper with the full backing of the state.”

    Michigan-based high-tech businesses that have been created as a result of U of M’s MEMS research include Integrated Sensing Systems, Canopus Systems, Dexter Research, Advanced Sensor Technologies and Accumed.


    More about the Center’s potential

  • Neural probes.

    The U-M is developing slender chips that can be inserted into brain or nerve tissue to tap into the signals produced by individual neurons. These little devices are being used to open up entirely new research areas in the neurosciences. In the cochlear (auditory) nerve, for example, researchers using probes developed at the University have identified specific cell types (named Bushy and Octopus) that signal different components of a sound. The neurons use a “divide-and-conquer” approach to decode a noise just as the rods and cones of our retina read different wavelengths of light. This insight may lead to dramatically improved cochlear implant devices to restore hearing to the deaf. A Washington University researcher is using a newer U-M device called a sieve probe. Inserted into a nerve so that the cell connections regrow right through the device, it reads nerve signals as they pass through it. Eventually, these devices will be used to better isolate all of the logical and physical connections of a given neuron, a first step toward understanding how the brain is wired.

  • Implantable drug-delivery systems.

    A natural outgrowth of the neural probes is the ability to measure a person’s neurological activity then deliver tiny doses of electrical stimulation or medications precisely at the spot of the trouble. This strategy may prove useful in fighting migraines, seizure disorders or even depression at the cellular level.

  • Instant blood analysis. A silicon chip that is about the size of a grain of rice might soon be employed by emergency room personnel fighting a heart attack to give up-to-the-minute readings on a patient’s blood chemistry, saving vital time and lives. In a related breakthrough, U-M researchers have built an implantable blood pressure sensor that can read the pressure variations inside the coronary arteries, providing important information on plaque buildup.

  • Inertial sensors (accelerometers and gyros). Chips with moving parts that can sense mechanical forces are already familiar in the systems for ride-sensing and crash-sensing in autos, shake-correction in camcorders, and stabilization of satellites in orbit and a variety of airborne instruments. U-M researchers are making these devices even smaller and more sensitive to expand their market in military applications, microgravity measurements, earthquake prediction and toys.

  • Stimulators. U-M researchers are developing a hermetically sealed capsule, not much bigger than a grain of rice, that contains a MEMS device designed to send electrical signals for muscle flexing, heart pacemaking, bladder control, and perhaps visual stimulation. These wireless devices are being built to withstand the harsh environment of the body for up to 100 years. A related product can wrap around a nerve fiber and stimulate it on command.

  • Flying machine. MEMS researchers are teaming up with their colleagues in aerospace engineering to develop a flying wafer, slightly smaller than a CD, that is pocked with tiny jet engines to move it like a hovercraft. Batch-fabricated to be cheap, such flying wafers could provide the platform for hazardous chemical detection, mini traffic helicopters, or an exciting new generation of toys.

  • Lab on a chip.

    U-M researchers have rendered an entire lab table of DNA analysis machines, costing tens of thousands of dollars, on a single silicon chip about the size of a child’s finger. These chips could be mass-produced for under a dollar. This advance opens up the possibility of affordable, portable—even disposable—DNA analysis for health care, crime fighting and wildlife conservation, among other possibilities.

  • Resonators.

    Resonators, such as those found in cellular phones, are about 1 centimeter square, a size that has been a problem in miniaturizing wireless devices. One U-M researcher has built a resonator 1,000-times smaller than a conventional device that can be incorporated on the same chip as a cellular phone’s other circuits. With this innovation, the wrist-watch or lapel-pin cell phone is just around the corner.

  • Educational dimension.

    The ERC/WIMS will develop specialized engineering courses, internships and summer training programs for undergraduate and graduate students and teachers. The Center also will plan programs for middle and high school students and teachers. The educational programs will be offered via the Web.

  • Industrial collaboration/technology transfer.

    The ERC/WIMS also will work with the state and an industrial partnership program to facilitate bringing microsystems technology to industry. The industrial partnership program, currently in development, will consist of more than 25 companies and non-profit organizations, each paying at least $50,000 per year (and some significantly more) for access to intellectual property, faculty, students and facilities at the Center.

  • Facilities.

    The University’s Center will make use of state-of-the-art facilities for the fabrication of microsystems and associated devices, including the 14,000sf Class 10/100 Solid-State Fabrication Facility at the University. The facility supports a full range of microstructure, device and circuit fabrication techniques, and has pioneered MEMS development for more than 25 years. Michigan State University adds important facilities for new materials while Michigan Technological University adds capabilities for non-lithographic material processing and high-resolution micromilling. Very large-scale micropower circuit fabrication is being carried out in facilities made available by industrial partners. All three schools have extensive facilities for distance learning, permitting interactive networking of both research and educational efforts.