New Sensor Technologies Enabling Unexpected Applications


Innovative sensor technologies, and smarter ways of incorporating more intelligence continue to create surprising opportunities in the changing MEMS business.

Changes Needed for Sensors for Context Awareness

Lama Nachman, Head of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab, who will deliver a keynote address at the SEMI | MSIG MEMS & Sensors Executive Congress, suggests that if digital assistants are going to be very useful, they will require some specific sensor capabilities in order to understand emotion.

What we’re trying to do is change the way we assist people by having a deeper understanding of their needs. So far the assistants that try to be proactive don’t work very well, because they don’t understand the context well enough.

Lama Nachman, Head of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab

One problem is that the current sensors developed for various other applications will not fully measure the right things for these applications. Nachman also noted the problems of attempting to detect pupil dilation, which correlates with attention and alertness, with the typical image sensor or camera that is designed for capturing fine picture, or of trying to find what is taking place in the background with a phone that wants to remove the background noise.

“It would be very helpful if there were APIs for sensors so developers could set them to do particular things,” said Nachman. “With cycles of innovation moving so fast and machine learning emerging, sensors are not changing fast enough to keep up.”

Changes Needed for Sensors for Context Awareness

For context awareness, the real game changer will be the ability to identify emotion, such as with a sensor that measures variability of heart rate very accurately, in a form factor that people would be willing to wear, Nachman notes.

Recognizing emotion is even more interesting for systems that learn, since emotional reaction is fantastic feedback for an assistant to learn to be useful and not make you want to throw it out the window.

Lama Nachman, Head of Intel’s Anticipatory Computing Lab

Plenty of Opportunity Still for Growth in Traditional MEMS sensors

One may assume that the development of MEMS sensor technology would be slowing down, but it turns out there is still plenty of chance for innovation. “You’d think the world doesn’t need a better pressure sensor — that the ones developed so far are already more than good enough,” said Infineon’s Head of Sensor Segment Roland Helm, who will speak at the SEMI | MEMS & Sensors Industry Group (MSIG) conference. “But it turns out that higher performance pressure sensors or microphones, when combined with radar or other 3D sensors, and with smarter algorithms or machine learning, open a range of unexpected new applications. Things we never thought about turn out to be possible.”

Helm points out a next generation of microphones and ultra-sensitive capacitive pressure sensors, such as those with a second backplate that drive the physics of capacitive sensing, allowing new use cases. Together with improved software and other sensors, better pressure sensors are stabilizing the drones’ altitude during flight, or detecting the number of people present in a room for energy control, or sensing the closing or opening of doors or handset covers. The next-generation microphone systems are allowing voice controlled devices to correctly distinguish both from where the sound is coming, and who is speaking.

Successful Volume Manufacturing of Graphene Biosensors Enables Drug Development Applications

Nanomedical Diagnostics and Rogue Valley Microdevices, a MEMS foundry, are manufacturing commercial biosensors from graphene on 6" silicon wafers for a special drug development platform. The unique biocompatibility, high surface area and electrical conductivity of grapheme enable a wider range of detection and compatibility with more complex samples compared to existing technologies. Organizations including Merck, Johns Hopkins, Stanford and the CDC are employing the tool in their research. Nanomedical plans to launch a high-throughput version in 2018.

Drug Development Applications

The company has developed an effective system for transferring CVD graphene to silicon, and has collaborated with the MEMS foundry to develop etch and photolithography methods for patterning the single-atomic-layer film.

We needed a MEMS foundry that was willing to work with unconventional materials. Now that we’ve run more than two million transistors, we’ve reached the volumes needed to improve yields.

Mitchell Lerner, VP of Production, Nanomedical Diagnostics

This graphene fabrication technology could also be used for other applications, such as magnetic sensors, photodetection and thermal control for ICs.

Emerging Opportunities in Volume Markets for Biomedical Sensors

The $3.3B microfluidics and biomedical MEMS markets seem prepared for major growth over the next few years, Sébastien Clerc is a Yole Développement Analyst who will update on these biomedical opportunities at the conference. According to Yole’s 2016 market report, the BioMEMS market has witnessed a solid ~16% annual growth in the last four years; however, it is about to witness an order of magnitude increase as it moves further than specialty niche devices into some high volume products, Clerc said. The markedly enhancing quality and sophistication of customer health and fitness sensors indicate they are moving closer to medical grade performance, opening a real volume market to monitor chronic conditions such as heart disease.

Volume Markets for Biomedical Sensors

Demand may also increase to a billion units per year in the midterm future for microfluidics point-of-care devices as this technology gets fully developed for molecular diagnostics that can rapidly test for cancer cells from a simple blood test.

“A lot of companies are looking at this, and it’s potentially a big market with possibilities for annual screening of patients in the future to detect cancer at early stages,” says Clerc. “The challenge in microfluidics has been to figure out how to integrate and manufacture the chips with the chemistry, especially the sample preparation steps, which are still very challenging today.”

Each different test requires separate sample preparation and a reacting process flow. The startups and Universities who develop the detection chemistries and design the cartridges generally do not have the proficiency to design the systems for volume manufacturing; however, they must think about it at the early stage of the process in order to avoid time-consuming and costly redesign steps.

New Sensor Technologies Enabling Unexpected Applications

These and other speakers — including Lars Reger, NXP; Wen Hsieh, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; Peter Hartwell, TDK/InvenSense; Marcellino Gemelli, Bosch Sensortec; Alissa Fitzgerald, AM Fitzgerald; Rudy Burger, Woodside Capital Partners; and Jérémie Bouchaud, IHS Markit — will discuss the technologies and applications that drive the next growth of industry at the MEMS & Sensors Executive Congress, the annual gathering of sector leaders, in San Jose, California on November 1st-2nd, 2017.


This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by SEMI.

For more information on this source, please visit SEMI.


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