Masdar: making sense of microsystems

Established this year, the research centre, iMicro, gathers under one umbrella several tracks of research that scientists at Masdar Institute have already been working on for years.

This is the second in a six-part series where The National takes you inside the new centres driving Abu Dhabi’s bid to be a world-leader in sustainable living.

ABU DHABI // If the subject matter of the Institute Centre for Microsystems at the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology seems complicated, the man heading it is skillful at explaining in laymen’s terms.

Established this year, the centre, iMicro, unites several tracks of research that scientists at Masdar Institute have been working on for years. With a workforce of 13 core faculty and eight affiliated faculty, plus six research staff, the centre is probably the biggest in this research area in the country, said its head, Dr Ibrahim Elfadel, professor of microsystems engineering.

“This centre is unique in terms of its size when it is compared with similar departments in the UAE,” he said. The centres scope of work covers various aspects of research into semiconductors.

Some of the team work in developing electronic chips, the tiny devices that “put the brains into our appliances and gadgets” such as computers and smartphones. Others focus on perfecting the electronic components that form electronic circuits. The centre carries research into advanced photovoltaic cells, converting sunlight into electricity, as well as what Dr Elfadel referred to as microelectromechanical systems.

To illustrate the latter, he gives as an example some of the sensors in a smartphone that allow the screen to rotate, following rotation of the phone itself.

“You take your smartphone and you rotate the screen, how does it know? There is an orientation sensor, there is a navigation sensor – these are microelectromechanical sensors – we develop some of these sensors also in some of our research,” he said.

The centre has 50 students affiliated to the programme and more than 40 externally sponsored projects.

A significant part of the research is supported by the Advanced Technology Investment Company (Atic). It was formed with seed capital of Dh36.7 million, which helped establish the microsystems programme at Masdar Institute, financed a clean room on campus and initial faculty hiring. The first batch of graduates of the programme received their degrees in May 2012.

Atic was also the donor for iMicro’s first sponsored research, after a competitive call for proposals was issued to universities across the UAE in 2011. Out of more than 50 proposals, seven research projects received funding, of which three were projects by iMicrostaff.

In 2012, iMicro started a project with the Dresden University of Technology in Germany, exploring three-dimentional (3D) integrated circuits, to help improve the performance and the energy efficiency of semiconductors, as well as in reducing their size and the size of the gadgets they are eventually fitted into.

In terms of practical application, this research can help insert intelligence in places where before it was not possible to do so – such as needles, which can be used to take readings from a patient.

The centre is also working with the Institute for Microelectronics in Singapore, on research into microelectromechanical systems with 13 projects worth US$6 million (Dh22.03m). One important area of this research is into energy harvesters. These are tiny devices that can generate electricity from thermal energy or vibration.

“These are again microelectromechanical sensors that would sense motion or vibration in the surrounding space and then transform that into energy that could be used to power electronic gadgets,” Dr Elfadel said.

“This is a whole new area whose growth is going to be really important so that all the mobile gadgets that we have could be self-powered and we do not have to worry about plugging them into a wall so we can recharge them,” he said.

Published: May 31, 2014 04:00 AM


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