The U.S. Department of Defense's DARPA research initiative anticipates gaining advantages with military devices, but bigger potential awaits. The end result could significantly impact commercial applications as well, predicts John Papapolymerou of Georgia Tech's School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

He's referring to the potential of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-enabled microsystems to fundamentally change -- even revolutionize -- communications, sensors and signal processing. Among the benefits: systems characterized by low cost, reduced size and greater power efficiency plus heightened performance and functionality.

With a research team of universities and companies, DARPA is seeking to develop CAD systems that are based on physical models and therefore can conclusively predict the behavior of MEMS devices. The research also involves nano-electromechanical systems (NEMS).

In addition to Georgia Tech, university participation includes Lehigh University, Purdue University and the University of Virginia, with Andreas Cangellaris from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign serving as director. The new research center is referred to as the Investigate Multi-physics Modeling and Performance Assessment-driven Characterization and Computation Technology (IMPACT) Center for Advancement of MEMS/NEMS VLSI.

Funding comes from DARPA and a consortium of companies that includes BAE Systems Inc., Innovative Design & Technology, MEMtronics Corp., Raytheon Co., Nzimat, Rockwell Collins and Rogers Corp. Companies are continuing to join and more software specialists such as Coventor are expected to be among them, notes Cangellaris.

Coming: CAD systems that can conclusively predict the behavior of MEMS devices, says Georgia Tech's John Papapolymerou (center).
Papapolymerou says DARPA's goal is to facilitate and accelerate the development of MEMS-based devices. "Eventually engineers developing systems with MEMS devices could use a simple drag-and-drop interface to simulate not only the electrical effects of MEMS usage, but also thermal, mechanical and reliability aspects as well," he predicts. "What we're trying to do here is to evolve the best possible understanding of the MEMS material performance into an easy-to-use CAD model," Cangellaris observes.

"This kind of predictive capability could greatly increase the speed with which MEMS-enabled microsystems can be developed," says Papapolymerou. What now takes months of development time will soon be able to be accomplished in days or hours with the CAD tool now being researched, adds Cangellaris. He feels that this reality is but a few years away.

Initially, Papapolymerou says Georgia Tech will receive about $1.25 million for a six-year effort. However as more companies join the initiative, that amount is likely to increase.

Georgia Tech's initial efforts are focused on the fundamental physics of MEMS devices -- particularly with respect to dielectric charging of MEMS switches. Many knowledge gaps remain to be resolved. For example, Papapolymerou says it is unclear how much performance is degraded when MEMS devices are exposed to the operating conditions of an integrated circuit. "When we have a better understanding of the fundamental physics of MEMS devices, we can then proceed to the higher-order models and levels that are required to develop a CAD program," he says.

"The ultimate goal of the IMPACT center will be to promote the availability of MEMS/NEMS-based micro-and nanosystems in military and commercial applications," Papapolymerou adds. "This is meant to be a dynamic center with expansions that will take on a growing number of research problems."

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