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'Microswimmer' Wins Novel Design Category of Sandia Sponsored MEMS Competition

A "microswimmer" about the diameter of a human hair won the "novel design" category of the fifth annual Sandia National Laboratories-sponsored MEMS University Alliance Design Competition.

The microswimmer, which resembles a tiny fish, is designed to have an aluminum tail that whips back and forth from being heated and cooled by periodic bursts of microwave radiation.

MEMS is an acronym for microelectromechanical systems.

Sandia senior microfabrication manager Tom Zipperian said a possible future use for the design could be to travel along a person’s bloodstream, much like the shrunken vessel that navigated the human body in the movie Fantastic Voyage.

The design was created by Kevin Bagnall from the University of Oklahoma’s School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering and presented by graduate student Jeff Lantz, under the direction of professor Harold Stalford.

A second area of competition — which encompasses development of a device that characterizes and tests the reliability of tiny devices, on-chip and in place — was won by Texas Tech University students with a design they termed a “tribogauge.”

The device could be used to determine the wear, friction, stiction (the force necessary to set a part in motion) and lubrication of moving parts of MEMS devices. (These determinations are called tribological.) The work was presented by student Ganapathy Sivakumar, under the direction of associate professor Tim Dallas.

Also participating in this year’s contest, held in late May, were the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Utah and the Air Force Institute of Technology.

The program has drawn increased interest from universities, said Sandia design competition leader Mark Platzbecker, because MEMS mirrors have gained prominence for switching pixel colors in the latest flat-screen DLP [digital light processing] TVs. MEMS accelerometers have gained a similar high profile for providing key sensing elements in popular Wii game controllers.

Among universities now going through the process to join the alliance but not yet signed up are Cornell and the University of New Mexico. Interest has been expressed by Duke University and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

The contest, which took place in a conference room at Sandia’s MESA center, is intended to take students beyond the academic classroom into a world where MEMS devices are of high significance — “a career-altering moment for some student engineers,” said Platzbecker.

The MEMS University Alliance is part of Sandia’s outreach to universities to improve engineering education. It is open to any U.S. institution of higher learning. The alliance provides classroom teaching materials and licenses for Sandia’s special SUMMiT V™ design tools at a very reasonable cost. This makes it possible for a university without its own fabrication facilities to develop a curriculum in MEMS. The design competition is an increasing activity within the University Alliance, which now has more than 20 members.

The entire process takes almost nine months. It starts with students developing ideas for a device, followed by creation of an accurate computer model of a design that might work, analysis of the design, and finally, design submission. Sandia’s MEMS experts and university professors review the design and determine the winners.

Sandia’s state-of-the-art MESA fabrication facility then creates parts for each of the entrants. The SUMMiT V™ fabrication process makes MEMS devices with five levels of polysilicon, the most of any standard process, and is especially well-suited for making complex mechanisms such as gear drive trains. The design competition capitalizes on Sandia’s confidence in achieving first-pass fabrication success.

Fabricated parts are shipped back to the university students for lengthy tests to determine whether the final product matches the purpose of the original computer simulation.

The University Alliance coordinates with the Sandia-led National Institute for Nano Engineering (NINE), providing additional opportunities for students to self-direct their engineering education, and the Sandia/Los Alamos Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies (CINT), a DOE Office of Science center with the most up-to-date nanotechnology tools.


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