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A Star Is Born

The special screening of “Star Wars” may or may not have served as a preview to Hollywood’s filmless future (Lucas also chose a competing digital projection technology developed by CineComm Digital Cinema to show the movie at a separate pair of theaters). But it’s the most glamorous sign to date that MEMS devices, often too small to be seen by the human eye, are poised to change everything from how we watch movies to the size of the cell phones we carry.

The miniature silicon machines move and work, unlike semiconductor chips used in microelectronics, in ways remarkably reminscent of macroscopic objects. And, after decades of development and hundreds of millions of dollars in investments, the micro-sequel to the original machine revolution is gaining momentum. Dot-sized motion sensors are now used in most automotive air bags, and ultrathin silicon membranes are used to measure blood pressure inside human hearts; coming attractions will feature tiny mirrors that can switch light between optical fibers to greatly enhance the efficiency and reliability of optical communications, and resonators that could shrink wireless communication, making Dick Tracy’s wrist phones a reality.

“The technology has methodically advanced during the last 10 to 15 years, and it’s just hitting its commercial stride,” says MEMS researcher and entrepreneur Mehran Mehregany of Case Western Reserve University. Market analyses put MEMS annual sales at several billion dollars and predict the number will grow to between $5 billion and $10 billion within five years.

Those numbers have helped create a gold-rush mentality among researchers-and some investors. There are an estimated 10,000 scientists working on MEMS at 600 universities, government labs, big companies and tiny startups, according to Roger Grace, a San Francisco-based consultant. Fueling the fever are tales of MEMS startups striking it rich. Most notably, in 1997 data storage giant Seagate Technology bought San Jose, Calif.-based Quinta for $325 million. The startup, founded just two years earlier following a Silicon Valley cafe meeting, is developing a system using micromirrors-somewhat similar to Hornbeck’s-in a laser guidance system for next-generation disk drives.

Alongside the enthusiasm, MEMS has gained a reputation as a technology better suited to building tiny playthings than to constructing moneymaking machines. In the early 1980s, researchers first realized silicon chips could be as good for making very small mechanical parts as they were for making electronic circuits. Scientists began developing microfabrication techniques to make Lilliputian wheels and gear trains, motors that could push shafts, valves for controlling microflows of fluid, and mirrors that pop up into the path of a laser beam. But MEMS labs retained the aura of high-tech curio shops most memorable for showcasing the world’s smallest versions of everything from guitars to cars. “There was too much gimmicky press,” acknowledges Karen Markus, vice president of Cronos Integrated Microsystems in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

While microscopic pictures of mites and ants towering over clockwork-like structures are irresistible to journalists, some venture capitalists find them distinctly resistible. “My feeling is that most MEMS work is ill-conceived,” says Greg Blonder, a former MEMS researcher turned venture capitalist, or as he calls himself, “entrepreneur in residence,” at AT&T Ventures in Basking Ridge, N.J. Blonder contends that many examples of MEMS amount to little more than miniature Rube-Goldberg machines, and he says that MEMS projects are often answers searching for problems that have far simpler solutions. Says Blonder: These projects “add no real value but add complexity.”

But that doesn’t mean Blonder dismisses all MEMS projects. He simply argues that MEMS devices must be conceived of differently than macroscopic machinery. MEMS operate on a scale of micrometers and millimeters, and in that small world things can behave somewhat differently. There are surprising scaling effects-these effects, for example, allow ants to lift up to 50 times their own weight. “Where the real excitement is going to be is in MEMS that leverage the strengths of physics of those dimensions,” Blonder says. Sensors, relays and other micromechanical devices capable of using extremely slight pressure and temperature fluctuations to move parts are promising, he adds. So are devices in which small sizes can speed up chemical reactions and more efficiently dissipate heat.

Blonder’s cautious, discriminating approach has done little to dampen enthusiasm among researchers. The success that semiconductor chipmakers have had in shrinking microelectronics serves as an omnipresent reminder that smaller is better-and more lucrative. Microelectronics prove that you can change society on a large scale through miniaturization, mass production and cost reduction, argues Neal Barbour of Draper Laboratories in Cambridge, Mass. In his view, microprocessors and memory chips are mere hints of a much more generalized trend of miniaturizing technologies. “MEMS is fundamental, just like electronics,” says Al Pisano, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s MEMS funding program, which has an annual budget of $50 million. “MEMS will grow just like electronics. And it will become just as ubiquitous.”

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