By Tom Henderson
Small Times Senior Writer
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — The first Engineering Research Center in the U.S. devoted exclusively to MEMS has started 42 doctoral research projects in its first nine months.
Director Kensall Wise hopes that some of them will lead to large-scale treatment for deafness in the next 20 years.
In a confidential report issued last week to the 19 members
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The ERC also plans to create a master’s degree program in microsystems, and to develop educational programs for junior high and high school students.
The ERC is one of 17 centers approved and funded nationwide by the National Science Foundation and the only one dedicated to research in MEMS, according to Lynn Preston, who oversees the ERCs as deputy director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Engineering Education and Centers.
Partner universities include the University of Michigan, where the ERC is headquartered, Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University. The focus is on wireless integrated microsystems (WIMS), with two major thrusts being the creation of implantable MEMS devices for the treatment of neurological disorders and external sensing devices to be used for environmental applications.
The WIMS ERC was funded for five years for $29.5 million, about $16 million of that coming from the NSF. The NSF will review the ERC after three years. If suitable progress has been made, funding will be renewed for another five years, said Preston.
The ERC is also funded by the member universities, other federal agencies and the state of Michigan.
The WIMS program at U-M began Sept. 1, 2000. U-M’s other ERC, in reconfigurable machining systems, is six years old. Only four other universities head up two ERCs — the University of Illinois, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“When we give a school a second ERC, the proposal obviously has to bubble right to the top. It can’t be at the edge,” said Preston. “And we have a pretty good history with the university.
“This was one of the strongest proposals we’ve seen in a lot of competitions. And we heard that throughout the review process,” said Preston.
“What made it so strong? They’ve taken on systems-level challenges. They’re putting together devices, components and control systems. For example, they’re doing that with their cochlear implants.
“It’s sufficiently complicated, but it’s doable in a few years. I think they knew they could get some integrative aspects going quickly . . . And they had strong commercial partnerships in place.”
The only other ERC funded last year was one in sub-surface sensing and imaging systems, a joint effort by Boston University, the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
A PROGRESS REPORT
“We’ve been working 60-80 hour weeks the last month,” said Wise, a MEMS pioneer and U-M prof since 1974. “The faculty works harder now than it does during the school year. To me, teaching is R&R. That’s fun. This is work.” The U-M school year ended in April.
Wise and ERC staff met for two days last week for a semi-annual conference with the center’s 19-member Industrial Advisory Board. Forming alliances with business has been a central tenet of the ERCs since the NSF launched them in the fall of 1984.
Larger, out-of-state businesses pay the WIMS ERC $50,000 a year to become partners. Four in-state businesses with fewer than 50 employees pay $10,000. In return for that money and program input and advice, the firms get access to top students and faculty, a heads-up on promising projects, early access to intellectual property and a break on royalties for future collaborations.
U-M’s industrial partners — a combination of national heavyweights such as 3M, Honeywell, Intel, Motorola, National Semiconductor and General Motors as well as smaller local companies such as Advanced Sensor Technologies, ISSYS and Ardesta LLC — were brought up to date on progress in the first nine months. Small Times Media is owned by Ardesta.
* The ERC has 28 faculty, 27 undergraduates, two masters students, 66 doctoral students and four post-docs, with plans to expand to one undergraduate paired with each doctoral student.
* Forty-two doctoral projects have begun, including sensors that use metal nanoclusters, gas sensing devices with environmental applications, diamond film coatings, sensors for remote rain monitoring, micropumps for precise drug delivery of tiny (100-picoliter) amounts of drugs for treatment of epilepsy and Parkinson’s, and hermetic packaging technologies for WIMS devices.
* WIMS researchers have made a prototype wireless pressure sensor, the forerunner of devices that may one day be planted in stents to allow the measurement of intra-arterial pressure simply by waving a radio-frequency wand over the implant site.
* A set of prototype electrode arrays has been designed for a wireless cochlear implant, the first of what Wise hopes will be a series of neural prostheses.
“Most deafness will be treatable, probably in the next two decades,” said Wise. “Though some conditions that wipe out both the cochlea and the auditory nerve will be tougher.”
Other devices may let the blind see and reduce the effects of Parkinson’s, paralysis and epilepsy.
Education linking with schools has been a major goal of the ERC program.
* In late June, high school science teachers from four Michigan communities — Okemos (near Michigan State), Houghton (Michigan Tech), Ann Arbor and Dearborn will meet with ERC officials for a workshop whose aim is to develop ways of using WIMS to make science more fun for high school students.
“This stuff is pretty cool,” said Wise. “You show kids thermal flow meters — they’re pretty easy to understand. And infra-red imagers are cool. This stuff is pretty visual; there’s a lot of interesting principles you can demonstrate using WIMS.”
* At MSU, beginning in July, there are four one-week intensive residential programs for promising minority science students from the Detroit area.
The free program brings in 25 kids each week from the eighth and ninth grades and covers Web design, engineering design, mathematics and selected topics in WIMS.
The program, funded in part by the ERC this year, began last summer and involves other Michigan universities, including Wayne State, the University of Detroit-Mercy and Lawrence Tech University.
* A curriculum for a Master of Engineering degree in integrated microsystems is being developed, built around a core of WIMS/MEMS courses.
AN IMPRESSED INDUSTRIAL CHAIRMAN
Nader Najafi, CEO of ISSYS, Inc., an Ann Arbor-based maker of pressure and flow sensors, is chairman of the ERC’s Industrial Advisory Board.
“All the industrial members were very much impressed,” he said of the progress report, adding particular praise for the ERC’s educational programs. Najafi was with about 35 industry leaders at a MEMS Industry Group conference in Pittsburgh on April 24-25. The announcement that the ERC is creating a master’s program in microsystems addresses a major concern raised by that group.
“At the MEMS Industry Group meeting, we all expressed a need for a dedicated master’s degree in MEMS,” he said. “So, this is very exciting.”
He said the ERC hopes to make it easier for students to get internships in industry, and to arrange travel by professors and students to visit member companies. Their goal: help students relate what they learn in the classroom with real-life applications in the workplace.
“We want to make a bridge in this gap of technology transfer,” he said.
A key to that bridge, he says, is the appointment of Joe Giachino as director of external affairs and industry liaison for the ERC. Giachino is a former senior technical specialist at Visteon, the giant auto parts supplier, focusing on MEMS and microsystems. He brings an industrial/commercial perspective to the ERC.
“With the ERCs, what we’re doing is something that industry asked us to do,” said Preston. “The ERCs mimic in academia something closely resembling what happens in industry. Our students prove to be better students than those who work with a single professor, write a dissertation and graduate.”
Najafi said that NSF’s commitment to the WIMS ERC proves small tech has arrived. “The NSF only invests in technologies that can give the U.S. a technological advantage. Getting an ERC for MEMS is s very good sign that MEMS is now considered a viable economic strategy.”
ERC FACTS AND FIGURES
* The NSF launched its ERC program in 1984. It has established 37 ERCS in all; 16 successfully finished their 10-year terms, 17 are under way and four were terminated early upon review.
* Industry partners now account for 28 percent of funding, with the NSF contributing 31 percent, other federal agencies 24 percent, academia 11 percent and state government 5 percent.
* Fifty for-profit companies have been spun off from ERC research. * ERCs have produced more 562 inventions and secured 330 patents. * In 1999, more than 200 different technologies were transferred to industrial partners.
* Participating ERC students have received 2,282 Ph.Ds, 2,171 master’s degrees and 2,138 bachelor’s degrees.
* The centers have resulted in 18 new degree programs, 648 new or modified courses, 84 new textbooks, and 9,777 publications in refereed journals.