$4.5M Grant Awarded for New Center for MEM/NEMS Advancement

Thanks in large part to the efforts of five of its own researchers, the Beckman Institute will be headquarters to a new multi-university center aimed at moving forward the development of micro- and nano-electromechanical systems (MEMS and NEMS) for integration with larger systems.

A team of five Beckman Institute researchers and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Provost Linda Katehi led the way in securing a $4.5M grant for the establishment of the IMPACT Center for the Advancement of MEMS/NEMS VLSI.

The multi-university grant proposal included a team from Beckman led by principal investigator Andreas Cangellaris, and fellow Institute researchers Narayana Aluru, Philippe Geubelle, Ioannis Chasiotis, and Umberto Ravaioli. The other universities involved in the award are Purdue, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Lehigh, as well as industrial partner MEMtronics.

The $4.5M grant is from DARPA - the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, responsible for central research and development organization for the Department of Defense - and a group of high-tech corporations: Raytheon, Rockwell Collins, BAE Systems, Fluent, Rogers Corporation, nGimat, EMAG Technologies, and ID&T. The grant is for a base period of three years with an optional three-year extension that will be considered at the end of the base period.

Cangellaris will serve as Co-Director of the Center, along with Katehi and Dr. Edgar Martinez, Assistant Dean of Engineering for Research and Entrepreneurship at Purdue University. Cangellaris said there have been significant advances in the design, prototyping, and demonstration of MEMS devices, but exploiting their full potential for use in highly-integrated computing, sensing, and communication systems has been slow.

"The primary reason is the lack of quantitative understanding of the fundamental multi-domain physics phenomena that govern the functionality of a MEMS device and impact its performance degradation, especially when subjected to operating conditions imposed by its integration environment," Cangellaris said. "Our Center's mission is to contribute to the scientific advances needed for overcoming this hurdle."

The IMPACT Center for the Advancement of MEMS/NEMS VLSI is one of eleven centers established by DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) with the mission of conducting "the fundamental research needed for comprehending the impact of material properties, surfaces, material interfaces, and operating conditions on MEMS/NEMS functionality and device failure."

Cangellaris said the Center at Beckman would play a special role in reaching the goals set forth in the MTO mission statement.

"What is unique about our Center's research is the innovative blend of experimental characterization of material properties and interfaces at the micro- and nanoscale with the sophisticated modeling and computer simulation of the multi-domain physics - electromagnetic, thermal, mechanical, fluidic - that govern the functionality of the device," he said. "In this manner, in addition to unraveling the governing physics, we provide for its abstraction in terms of experimentally-validated computer models which, in turn, enable computer-aided design exploration of MEMS and NEMS devices and predictive assessment of device failure.

"This multi-domain physics modeling research component of our Center's activities will eventually become the foundation for the development of a computer-aided design framework in support of design exploration and prototyping of MEMS/NEMS enabled microsystems."

There is another aspect of the project that is distinctive, Cangellaris said. "What makes our Center unique is the multidisciplinary expertise of its members."

Cangellaris said that each university, as well as industrial partner MEMtronics, provides skills and knowledge in several complementary areas, including research lines such as computational structural mechanics, device reliability physics, and material interface characterization and modeling. He said that researchers at Illinois bring key elements to the project, including Katehi, who has expertise in micromachining and MEMS-enabled RF circuit design. The Beckman researchers are world-renowned in computational engineering for multi-domain physics modeling and, therefore, will play a central role in reaching the Center's goals.

"The essential core technology needed to make this possible is computational science and engineering," Cangellaris said. "Thus, it was natural for UIUC and, in particular, for a team of researchers - three of which are members of Beckman's Computational Multiscale Nanosystems group - to assume the leadership of this Center."

Cangellaris listed the contributions of each of the Beckman researchers:

  • Aluru is a leader in the advancement of computational technology for MEMS/NEMS modeling and functionality prediction;
  • Ravaioli's research is at the forefront of the advancement of multi-scale and stochastic modeling techniques for the investigative analysis of the electronic devices at the molecular and the atomistic level;
  • That knowledge is experimentally derived by Chasiotis, a Professor of Aerospace Engineering, and a leading expert in the investigation of the mechanical behavior of nano-structured materials;
  • Geubelle, also a Professor of Aerospace Engineering, is a world leader in the development of mathematical models and computer algorithms that allow for the impact of material properties to be taken into account in the predictive computational analysis of the mechanical failure of devices;
  • Cangellaris' own research focuses on advancing modeling methodologies and computer algorithms for the predictive assessment of the impact of electromagnetic noise generation and coupling mechanisms on the functionality of integrated electronic circuits and systems.

Projects that are part of the DARPA MTO mission fall within the broad categories of fluid sensing, control, and transport; mass data storage; optics and imaging; inertial instruments; radio frequency components and communication; and sensor and actuator networks or arrays.

The Center's research will focus on three classes of MEMS devices: contacting MEMS switches, specifically capacitive switches, and non-contacting MEMS actuators such as cantilevers and fixed-fixed beam actuators. The potential military applications of these devices include radio frequency front-end microsystems, harsh-environment health-monitoring sensors, and integrated bio-detectors.