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Producing MEMS a hundred-fold cheaper

22 Dec 2015  | Larry Hardesty

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The flakes are so thin that interaction with gas molecules changes their resistance in a measurable way, making them useful for sensing. "We ran the gas sensors head to head with a commercial product that cost hundreds of dollars," Velasquez-Garcia stated. "What we showed is that they are as precise, and they are faster. We make at a very low cost, probably cents, something that works as well as or better than the commercial counterparts."

To produce those sensors, Velasquez-Garcia and Taylor used electrospray emitters that had been built using conventional processes. However, in the December issue of the Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, Velasquez-Garcia reports using an affordable, high-quality 3D printer to produce plastic electrospray emitters whose size and performance match those of the emitters that yielded the gas sensors.

Made to order

In addition to making electrospray devices more cost-effective, Velasquez-Garcia said, 3D printing also makes it easier to customise them for particular applications. "When we started designing them, we didn't know anything," Velasquez-Garcia said. "But at the end of the week, we had maybe 15 generations of devices, where each design worked better than the previous versions."

Indeed, Velasquez-Garcia added, the advantages of electrospray are not so much in enabling existing MEMS devices to be made more cheaply as in enabling wholly new devices. Besides making small-market MEMS products cost-effective, electrospray could enable products incompatible with existing manufacturing techniques.

Chip with wired graphene oxide gas sensor

A completed chip with a wired graphene oxide gas sensor. The graphene oxide film is the greenish dot covering the electrode structure. Image: Anthony Taylor and Luis F Velasquez-Garcia

"In some cases, MEMS manufacturers have to compromise between what they intended to make, based on the models, and what you can make based on the microfabrication techniques,"

Velasquez-Garcia indicated. "Only a few devices that fit into the description of having large markets and not having subpar performance are the ones that have made it."

Electrospray could also lead to novel biological sensors, Velasquez-Garcia continued. "It allows us to deposit materials that would not be compatible with high-temperature semiconductor manufacturing, like biological molecules," he said.

"For sure, the paper opens new technical paths to making gas microsensors," said Jan Dziuban, head of the division of microengineering at Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland. "From a technical point of view, the process may be easily adapted to mass fabrication."

"But promising results must be proved statistically," he cautioned. "Personal experience tells me that plenty of very promising materials for new sensors, utilising nanostructured materials, which have been published in high-level scientific papers, haven't resulted in reliable products."

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