Leung's new microchip casts its magic spell

Oct 30, 2003, vol. 28, no. 5
By Diane Luckow

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Would-be Harry Potters will love it. A magical toy wand that creates an interactive display of lights in reaction to special spells is one surprising new product arising from the recent commercialization of an SFU invention.

Professor of engineering Albert Leung returned to SFU this semester after spending two years commuting to Boston where he assisted with the commercialization process for his thumbnail-sized accelerometer microchip.

The tiny, micromachined device uses hot air and very thin wires in an enclosed space to measure acceleration, motion and vibration. Relying on heat rather than mass to sense motion changes, it can be tens of times more sensitive and hundreds of times more robust than competitive devices and can be produced at a fraction of the cost.

Leung designed the chip with industrial applications in mind. Automobile manufacturers are using it, for example, to sense the magnitude of an impact for airbag deployment.

It can also be used in car alarms, in earthquake monitors and even in LCD projectors to perform automatic keystone adjustment to square up the projected image.

The tiny device has myriad potential uses, including supplying the magic in toy wands created by Magic Labs in California.

Special spells incorporating specific hand movements affect the accelerometer chip in the wand, which in turn makes the wand light up and cast different light patterns. The innovative toy is expected to reach the Canadian market sometime next year.

A new company, MEMSIC, Inc. of Andover, Massachusetts, formed solely to commercialize Leung's invention, recently built a U.S. $3 million, 43,000 square foot plant in Wuxi, China to produce 20 million chips per month at full production. SFU will share in royalties from sales of the chip. “We look forward to sharing in the future profits of this innovative product,” says Teri Lydiard, a technology manager with the university industry liaison office who assisted with licencing the patented chip to Analog Devices of Massachussets, which then formed spinoff company, MEMSIC.

Over the past two years, Leung has assisted with transferring the technology from the research lab to the factory floor.

“The excitement of seeing a new device move from our research lab into a successful commercial product gave me a lot of satisfaction,” says Leung, who looks forward to teaching engineering students some of the practical lessons he has learned in the process.

Leung has still more magic up his sleeve - he has just patented a new pressure sensor chip that could revolutionize how gas pressure is measured.

It can, for example, be used to automatically detect low tire pressure in automobiles.

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