From Feynman to Smartphones and on to nanotechnology

November 09, 2012

Ajith Amerasekera, TI Fellow and Business unit researcher at TI, gave an insightful keynote at MEMS Executive Congress this year entitled “Ultra Low Power Electronics in the Next Decade” He mentions how the MEMS idea was seeded:

In 1959 the physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” on the possibility of microminiaturization. To encourage progress he offered a prize of $1,000 to anyone who could build an operating electric motor that fit into a 1/64th inch cube, and within months, someone had done it. (See Physics Central article)

Figure 1: Here is a typical example of MEMS-- a crankshaft and gear, with a pollen grain, red blood cells, and a 50 micron line included for scale. Note that this distance is about the diameter of a human hair. (Courtesy Sandia National Laboratories, SUMMiTTM Technologies,

Feynman said, “I am telling you what could be done if the laws are what we think; we are not doing it simply because we haven't yet gotten around to it.” Well, we’re finally getting around to it in earnest, fueled by the smartphone craze and its content of multiple MEMS.

The speaker cited engines for semiconductor growth by outlining China’s 5 year strategic growth plan---a good place to start with over one billion customers! A key item of interest here is next generation IT for things such as the Internet of things, integration of telecom/cable TV/Internet networks and next-gen mobile communications.

The speaker told us that in the next 10 years, mobile internet units will increase one hundred fold to 10B+ with more than just phones—iPad, Smartphone, Kindle, Tablet, MP3, cell phone/PDA and on and on. (Courtesy of Morgan Stanley)

MEMS drive growth areas are seen on the extreme right side of the chart below in Figure 2:


 Figure 2: MEMS growth areas showing that we will need to lower power to near 1nW to 100 uW to succeed in the future (Courtesy Texas Instruments)

We will need the next gen of Smart power to meet the future needs of managing power demand and resources. Much of the responsibility will be put onto the IC design community to implement new and clever solutions for more efficient semiconductor designs going forward.

Intelligent environment requires autonomous systems that can operate for approximately 10 years. This type of autonomous system would require a battery/size cost point of about 1mAh and an average power available from the battery of 1nW. Today’s battery solutions will not do; we must find the next breakthrough technology for the 2020’s so EE’s need to work closely with chemists.

Energy harvesting will also not be enough; we need to be looking at biological and micro-fuels declared Amerasekera.

The “sensory swarm” was discussed next; that is, According to Dr.  Rabaey from U Cal at Berkeley who said it best, “the world around us will have tons of sensors embedded in all kinds of objects. This platform is where applications will run. These sensors, our mobiles, and the infrastructure core will all come together in a fully immersive environment. We have to think about the whole, not the components.”

Sensor hub evolution is migrating toward the Wireless Sensor Node. See Figure 3.

Figure 3: The Wireless Sensor Node (Courtesy Texas Instruments)

The future is nanotechnology with ultra-sensitive NEMS, carbon nanotubes, graphene and microchannels.

Concluding reflections from the Keynote speaker were:

  1. We are on the threshold of a new wave of electronic technology as we move into the decade
  2. Electronics will enable us to be greener, safer, healthier and have more fun
  3. Ubiquitous intelligence is going to be a driver of the application space for electronics
  4. Energy generation and management are critical
  5. Close collaboration across all disciplines of electronic engineering from transistors to systems to software

MEMS Technology has a critical role in this evolution.

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