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May 15, 2014

Rose-Hulman’s expanding MEMS program: Small work gets new big lab

Students on cutting edge

TERRE HAUTE — Some Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology students gathered in a “clean room” Thursday morning to test tiny mechanical devices, called MEMS, they had made.

MEMS stands for micro-electrical-mechanical systems, an emerging technology used by people every day in practical ways they may not realize.

“We’re one in a handful of colleges providing MEMS experiences to undergraduate students,” says Azad Siahmakoun, director of a recently moved and expanded laboratory in John T. Myers Hall.

Most people probably don’t realize it, but “many devices you use today have MEMS in [them]; for example, the device that deploys airbags in the car is a MEMS device,” he explained. They are in classroom projectors and various automotive and aerospace sensors.

Other MEMS and nano-sized products used every day include:

• Sun screen with micro devices that detect the sun’s intensity and prevent sunburns.

• Clothing created with nano textiles that never stain.

• Nano-particles being researched as a non-invasive method for selectively killing cancer cells.

On Thursday, the Rose-Hulman juniors — who are taking an Introduction to MEMS course —  worked out of the new MiNDS lab, which stands for Micro-Nano Device and Systems.

Formerly located in Moench Hall, it has doubled in size to 1,800 square feet of space, which means more room for students and for added equipment.

The lab is part of the Department of Physics and Optical Engineering. “The MiNDS Laboratory gives Rose-Hulman students distinct advantages in the exciting world of micro- and nano-technology. MEMS is the future,” Siahmakoun said.

While other colleges have similar labs, they are typically used by graduate students for research, and might involve undergraduates for funded projects.

At Rose, undergraduates can take courses as part of the regular curriculum “to learn this technology and skill sets that are essential to the frontiers of future technology,” Siahmakoun said.

It gives Rose-Hulman students “a leg up in getting jobs in this fast-growing field and also gets them into highly rated graduate programs for their Ph.D.s,” he said.

People use MEMS in technology because it reduces size, costs very little and is high in performance, in general, he said.

Teams of Rose-Hulman faculty and students are involved in a wide variety of micro and nano technology-related projects and coursework spanning several fields.

Every summer for the past four years, a group of undergraduate students from South Korea has come to Rose-Hulman to train in MEMS technology, Siahmakoun said. They learn to fabricate and design the micro-devices.

They will return again this summer. Otherwise, the South Korean undergraduates wouldn’t have access to such technology, he said.

Rose-Hulman has taught MEMS technology to its undergraduates since 2002, when it obtained a $400,000 W. M. Keck Foundation grant. The original grant has been supplemented by equipment donations from ON Semiconductor and the renovation of a clean space by Rose-Hulman.

Among the students participating in the lab Thursday was Bradlee Beauchamp of Indianapolis. “I think it’s pretty neat,” he said. “It’s a lot of technology you’re not really exposed to otherwise.”

His major is engineering physics and his future career interests include the nanotechnology field.

Christian Benson, an optical engineering major, took the class as an elective. “I think it’s really fun and interesting,” he said. While he probably won’t pursue it as a career, he’s learned a lot.

“I didn’t know any of this really existed — that they use these types of things in all sorts of technology,” he said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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