Local nanotech start-up Quantum Precision Instruments (QPI) is developing a technology platform that promises to offer the precision measurement required at the nano level. Dr Marek Michalewicz, founder and CEO, argues there are various problems with existing devices, known as MEMS (micro electro-mechanical systems) and NEMS (nano electro-mechanical systems) sensors. "It's very important to define the absolute position of features on the substrate, but at present there's a problem of drift. They can find it but it's something of a random event."
When it comes to accurate nano measurements, current devices can locate a given feature but the absolute coordinates are not defined at the atomic level, he explains. This means that, if the image is lost, it can be extremely difficult to re-locate the exact same feature or area.
According to Ernst & Young in Australia, while more than 800 different centres worldwide currently work in sensor or MEMS technology, none are taking the approach of QPI. Its products could revolutionise metrological and sensing devices, for both the application and analysis of nanotechnology developments.
A linear response
According to Dr Michalewicz, existing devices are fallible at the nano level because the current development process is based on the same physical principle and geometry as Scanning Tunnelling Microscopes (STMs). The STM system works through the scanning tip electrodes moving up and down against the substrate's surface. "Because of that, it's very hard to calibrate these devices," he says. "You can't control the rate of measurement."
QPI is working to develop a prototype based on a 'linear response' characteristic. Instead of the measurement electrode moving up and down, the system uses 2 electrodes, which slide against each other. Dr Michalewicz explains this eliminates 'exponential dependency': "The response is between the alignment of nano wires on the 2 planes, which when absolute creates maximum current. But step-changes between the wires produces linear changes in the current."
It is this control over the rate of change that is important, and why the QPI system will offer more accurate results, he claims. While the existing system has been fine for STMs, it has not been good enough for NEMS or MEMS suitable for nano applications. "Several devices based on quantum principles have been introduced, but not successfully because of the non-linearity," he adds.
Sensing nano applications
Applications for the QPI nanotechnology, which has nanowires at its heart with features of less than 100nm, include efficient mask alignment for lithographic processes at sub-100nm. Samsung has recently taken its semiconductor processes to the 90nm range, but Dr Michalewicz says levels could go much smaller yet.
But as well as nano-scale static applications, Dr Michalewicz says there is great potential for dynamic MEMs and NEMs, or sensors with movable parts and exceedingly high measurement precision. Applications include accelerometers, which measure acceleration and deceleration. These provide guidance sensors for the automotive and aviation industries, and for military applications like missile guidance.
They can also be used for measurement of vibrations, such as with CD drives. "Spinning in these drives has to be vibration-free as much as possible, but current measurement systems introduce errors themselves," he says. "They need to be as small as possible to introduce as little error as possible."
Another area is flow meters, for measurement of liquid or air flow. Sensors could be used to measure blood flow, in vivo, for example, or in wind and water tunnels for testing ship and aircraft models. "It's about making a lot of current processes considerably more accurate," Dr Michalewicz explains, and not only about new applications at the nano level.
With a first proof-of-concept prototype and rudimentary devices expected in February next year, QPI is also hoping to have proper funding in place about the same time. It's currently in negotiations with overseas venture capital organisations, as well as discussions with businesses in three separate countries regarding possible joint venture partnerships. However, it looks increasingly likely that, whatever gain QPI has from these discussions, it will be Australia's loss.
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