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Dan Sameoto

Tiny plastic MEMS with giant future

October 2, 2008

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By Barry Shell

Forty years after Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate was told that plastics are the future, Dan Sameoto, an SFU engineering science PhD graduate, has brought their amazing potential to the world of microelectronics.

Microelectromechanical (MEMS) systems are microscopic machines on silicon microchips. Combining gears and actuators as small as a millionth of a metre with electronic components, they sense and interact with the outside world. But at this scale the standard rules of physics do not always hold true.

Sameoto’s breakthrough doctoral research into plastic MEMS has opened a doorway to a host of potential applications in disposable, biological and underwater MEMS. Plastic MEMS don’t corrode like traditional silicon. They’re cheaper, faster to produce, and flexible, so they allow applications beyond anything seen before in microelectronics.

Sameoto has created ‘dry adhesives’ that mimic the stickiness of gecko feet, which let the creature walk upside down. The European Space Agency contracted him to develop these adhesives for a climbing robot to explore the planet Mars. "It’s better than a Post-it note," says Sameoto. "We get about half the adhesion pressure of a gecko."

The Nova Scotia native’s research was inspired by the need to create a generalized full plastic MEMS process for teaching. At the time, students’ silicon-based chip designs had to be sent away to conventional foundries, which could take months. Sameoto’s plastic MEMS process creates chips right here at SFU in days. It’s now used in two electrical engineering courses.

"We are taking MEMS out of the sterile environment," he says, "and bringing them out into the world to make useful real products that we can see and touch and feel."

Thanks to Sameoto, Canada is a world leader in polymer MEMS technology and SFU is a leading centre for micromachining. If his "gecko-foot" adhesives pan out, we may all benefit with unimagined applications—including the ability to walk up walls.

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