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Microsystem leads to creation of smaller hearing aids

06 Feb 2014

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A team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Germany created a microsystem that is fifty times smaller than existing body area network (BAN) electronics in an aim to develop a microscopic version of hearing aids. The technology, which could also be applied to pacemakers and other medical devices in the future, consists of 19 components and is being refined to consume less power and last to up to 20 weeks between battery recharging.

People with impaired hearing experience particular problems with hearing at higher frequencies and by following up conversations. Often a simple hearing aid can restore the lost frequencies and makes it possible for the patient lead a normal life again. The device is most often worn behind the ear, although some variants can even be inserted directly into the ear. In the EU WiserBAN project, Fraunhofer researchers are developing a new microsystem designed to make hearing aids so small, so that they can be concealed out of sight within the ear. This means that the system uses only a fraction of the energy required by conventional devices, keeping cumbersome battery changes to a minimum. "Ideally, patients should not even be feeling of wearing the hearing aid over long periods of time," said Dr. Dionysios Manessis from the Fraunhofer Institute.

Microsystem leads to creation of smaller hearing aids

Fraunhofer researchers pack a total of 19 components (left) into their microsystem (right). Systemon-chip integrated circuitry, high frequency filters, passive components are all fitted into a space measuring 4mmx4mmx1mm. Photo credit: Fraunhofer IZM

The 4mm x 4mm x 1mm microsystem was built out of especially small components such as innovative miniature antennas, system-on-chip integrated circuitry and high frequency filters. The job of the researchers at Fraunhofer IZM was to find a space-saving concept to accommodate all 19 components in a single module."This is a real challenge as all the components are of varying sizes and thicknesses. But having exploited various embedding technologies, which lead to advanced system-in-package (SiP) miniaturisation, we have managed to arrange all the components in the smallest possible space – just as in a package," according to Manessis. As viewed from outside, it is no longer possible to see the individual components. The packaging experts in Berlin have also developed a modular 3D stacking concept that saves extra space. This works by building the components into several smaller modules and then stacking these on top of each other.

The scientists are looking to optimise energy management for the devices. Hearing aids worn behind the ear are powered by a 180mAh battery (milliampere hour), which must be either replaced or recharged approximately every two weeks. Now the aim is to minimise the system's energy consumption to around 1mW, and so to extend battery life to up to 20 weeks. It is hoped that the new technology will act as the springboard for more comfortable and more reliable healthcare products in the future – from long-term electrocardiography to insulin pumps. Furthermore, there is the potential to use the microsystem in implants and pacemakers.

The project partners are also developing special antenna and wireless protocols to communicate important information such as pulse, blood pressure or glucose levels straight to the supervision Physician's tablet or smartphone. The resulting WiserBAN wireless system makes obsolete the relay station – an extra device that patients have previously been obliged to wear to extend the communication range. Another advantage is that the wireless protocols developed within the project are based on the reliable IEEE 802.15.4 and 802.15.6 standards. Conventional devices have ordinarily relied on Bluetooth, where there are often issues with interference with other devices.

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