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Kent April 15, 2021

MEMS: Microscopic machines — future tools

A View From the Edge

The Air Force Research Labs — mainly at Kirkland Air Force Base and Sandia Labs in New Mexico — have been working for 20-plus years on Mini-Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS). The work has not been all that secret. I first wrote about this 19 years ago and if I could know about it then, imagine where their research has taken them since.

First let’s have a look at what these MEMS are. And they are far more ground-breaking than the mapping project of the human genome, atomic bombs, laser anti-missiles and what we think of as cutting edge computer technology. Miniature machines, some are so small they can fit on the point of the sharpest needle and some are smaller still. Already the scientists there have built steam engines, cameras, molecular gears, optical vario-refracting surfaces, roto-rooter type tunneling machines and a host of inventions so secret we will only hear about them decades from now. Some, more than 25 years old, long since found their way into triggers in commercial use like the airbag sensors in your car or the g-force data collectors in racing cars and fighter jets.

Commercial applications are endless. Take that steam engine for example. It’s a self-priming steam engine with the capability of replenishing its “boiler” on the go. Inject it into your bloodstream with the roto-rooter attached and it will cruise around your body cleaning out your arteries. All day, every day, your cholesterol is chewed up and eventually is cleaned out by your liver. Want to see inside the brain, at a hidden tumor or blood clot? Inject the camera and it will take and transmit pictures with its rotating shutter. Think that’s impossible? Remember that the camera is less than 6 hundredths of an inch wide and 2 hundredths of an inch deep. And the steam engine? You can fit about 30 of them inside the needle of a small hypodermic syringe.

The industrial applications, now openly marketed by a commercial exclusive contract with Ardesta of Ann Arbor, Mich., (partnered with National Microsystems Accelerator consortium along with The Next Generation Economy Inc., the U. of New Mexico, Technology Ventures Corp. and Sandia) are even more amazing. Like the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s travels and the nanomachine Waldos of Heinlein’s science fiction books, these miniature machines create new industry and maintenance possibilities that should wipe out the need to wait for something to break. 

Built in your car, survivable in the heat of the engine, these little robots can flow with the oil in your engine, repairing cracks, scraping gunk from the cylinders. In short, your engine could always run like new. So will your refrigerator, sewing machine (heck, why sew? Miniature machines will keep cleaning and repairing that favorite silk shirt of yours), computer, fan, printer, phone, etc., etc.

Then there are the brave new world applications. When you are born, tiny MEMS will be injected into your bloodstream. Some will have monitoring functions, to tell doctors when you are getting sick or need care. Some will start out in your stomach to help digest food better (meaning you need to eat less), later morphing themselves into lower gut cleaners to keep you from getting colon cancer. Some will be designed to attack and eat cancer cells. Some will be the repair crew for the other machines. Some will stay dormant until a doctor activates them to repair bone tissue if you break your leg. If your retina degenerates, tiny mirrors slightly larger than the diameter of a human hair, activated electro statically over a polysilicon layer beneath a micromirror charged couple device array will renew your sight.

And the people at Sandia Labs aren’t through yet. They have been working on micro machines with gears rotating at speeds in excess of 1 million rpm, almost frictionless. Already being built are micro 10 lb space satellites the size of a softball with the power and functionality of satellites that used to weigh 4 tons. Under development are a melding of MEMS and computer chips, allowing analog thought processes; thinking chips much like the human brain — the AI builders of the near future.

The point is, these machines are not only smaller and more efficient, they operate in a way that permits new breakthroughs. Bordering on the perpetual machine concept, these machines allow the scientists and engineers of tomorrow a huge new field to explore to mankind’s benefit. And here’s the point: The next, and the next, and the next industrial and scientific revolution are coming faster than you can know — so think ahead and get ready.


Writer Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.

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