MEMS technology produces air pressure sensor

Shahrzad "Sherry " Towfighian
Researcher Sherry Towfighian of the State University of New York at Binghamton. (SUNY Binghamton)

Ongoing research on MEMS-based microswitch technology at the State University of New York at Binghamton has produced an air-pressure sensor that could improve many everyday devices, according to an article on the university’s website.

Last August, the researchers harnessed the same technology to produce tiny, noise-free microphones. "This is the same mechanism as devices we've designed in the past, but it's a different application," said principal investigator Shahrzad "Sherry" Towfighian, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Binghamton's Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science.

"The heart of the sensor still consists of four electrodes, and conventional sensors have two electrodes," said Towfighian. "That allows us to better tune the properties of the system."

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The study was funded through a $480,958 grant from the National Science Foundation. Binghamton University PhD student Mark Pallay conducted much of the research under the supervision of Towfighian and her co-principal investigator, Distinguished Professor Ronald N. Miles of the Mechanical Engineering Department. Pallay has graduated and now works at Seagate Technology as a research and development engineer.

One advantage the MEMS device is its self-contained design, as there's no need for a computer to analyze the readings, making the response time faster and more reliable.

"It not only senses the pressure but also triggers a switch," Towfighian said. "Usually a sensor needs to sense the pressure, process it through software to decide if the right conditions have been met and then trigger the switch. This one is a compact pressure sensor and switch, so by sending the voltage to one of the electrodes, you can make it work at different pressures."

Towfighian added that the device’s use of four electrodes can lengthen its lifespan. "Often there is a problem with the current devices that they have a limited lifespan because of having two electrodes, but having two other electrodes enables us to make it more durable and increase the life of the device."

The researchers believe the new devices has a number of possible uses, such as measuring barometric pressure, monitoring oxygen for premature babies at hospitals, or detecting tire pressure in vehicles.

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