ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The day when vehicles are made still safer by tiny machines each no bigger than a thumbnail is approaching more rapidly because of an agreement signed between Sandia National Laboratories and Analog Devices Inc. of Woburn, Mass.
Sandia has licensed Analog -- an industry leader in the manufacture of airbag micromachine sensors -- to commercialize the technology used to make Sandia's integrated micromachines.
An integrated micromachine is a tiny "smart" machine that combines microcircuits, sensors and actuators on a single computer chip. Sandia is a world leader in this field.
The agreement is expected to help stimulate production of a new generation of very small consumer and military devices. In cars, these should include anti-tamper, anti-skid and active-vibration control systems.
"Devices we envision represent a second silicon revolution," said Paul McWhorter, manager of the Laboratories' micromachine effort. "We're not simply adding more, smaller transistors to a chip. We are adding functions that sense and act."
While the exact business terms of the agreement are proprietary, because of the size of the market the nonexclusive license is anticipated to be the largest partnership of its kind ever signed by Sandia. The agreement inaugurates a substantial multi-year business relationship between Sandia and Analog. The specific market for micromachine-based inertial sensors worldwide is estimated to be $3.8 billion, said McWhorter.
"Traditionally, the focus of the microelectronics industry has been to continue to pack more transistors onto a chip, leading to more powerful computers," said McWhorter. "This agreement will break this trend by focusing on the development of chips with not only electronics but also small machines. These give chips the ability to sense where they are and what is going on around them."
The long-term license involves transfer of Sandia's intelligent micromachine technology to Analog Devices. Several published market studies project the entire micro-electromechanical industry to reach $8 billion to $12 billion by the year 2000, said Angelo Salamone, who manages commercial business relationships for the Lab's microelectronics defense technology transferred to industry.
"The upfront money will help transfer technology from Sandia to Analog," he said. "Royalty payments will help pay for further research."
Funds from the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) will aid in the cost of transferring the technology. "Ordinarily, DARPA funds industry to do high risk, defense-related projects," said McWhorter. "In this case, if the Air Force needs, say, an accelerometer, it'll be able to buy one from Analog."
Analog's airbag sensors use micromachines to signal when a vehicle is undergoing sufficently rapid, sustained deceleration for the airbag to deploy. The company is a pioneer in the development of commercial products based on micromachined devices.
Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley's Sensor and Actuator Lab, credited with making some of the earliest known micromachines, will also be involved in designing new, smarter products.
Because batches of silicon micromachines can be fabricated through manufacturing techniques already widely used to make integrated circuits, micromachines are far cheaper than the complicated multi-metal constructions originally necessary to signal an airbag to inflate. Rather than being made individually, micromachines can be fabricated quickly and cheaply by the thousands.
Also, because the machines have so little weight, they are less likely to be damaged by sudden deceleration, because force is proportional to mass -- which, in this case, is almost nonexistent.
"This license represents the latest of more than 180 commercial agreements successfully concluded to transfer Sandia-developed defense technology to private industry," said Salamone.
Sandia is a multiprogram DOE laboratory, operated by a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major research and development responsibilities in national security, energy, and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.
Visuals of micromachines: available.
Media Contact: Neal Singer, firstname.lastname@example.org (505) 845-7078
Tech Contact: Paul McWhorter, email@example.com (505) 844-4683
Tech Transfer Contact: Angelo L. Salamone, firstname.lastname@example.org (505) 843-4146
Sandia micromachine web site: http://www.mdl.sandia.gov/Micromachine