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For years scientists have known that tiny parts within tiny chips vibrate, and those vibrations, triggered by motion stopping or starting, can in turn trigger an action. But just as mothers know chicken soup works for a cold — without understanding the science behind it — engineers are still studying why these tiny vibrations occur, and how to harness them.

Mohammad Younis has worked for years to understand the vibrations and mechanics of these miniscule micro-electromechanical systems, known as MEMS. Younis’ work combines materials and chemical engineering with physics in a multi-million-dollar Binghamton University laboratory with a multi-disciplinary team. He believes that knowing how to control the vibrations will lead to better uses of the chips — faster air bags, more accurate seismic readings or scores of other uses no one has thought of yet.

Mohammad Younis

“It’s like the invention of airplanes,” Younis said. “The Wright brothers made their plane. But without understanding the laws of physics and the airplane and aerodynamics, we would not have the planes we have today.”

“It’s sort of the same,” he said of MEMS. “People fabricated MEMS, and then there was a lag between understanding the physics and the fabrication.”

Younis grew up in Jordan, where his interest in math and science was piqued as a child. He studied mechanical engineering at the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Irbid, Jordan, and came to the United States for his master’s and doctoral degrees at Virginia Tech. It was there, in Blacksburg, Va., that Younis first discovered MEMS.

His adviser warned him that his chosen path of study wasn’t a typical master’slevel project — it was more. Younis still finished in a year and a half and continued the work as a doctoral student.

The interdisciplinary nature of the study intrigued him.

“You need to know mechanical and electrical engineering,” he said. “You need to know, for example, about solid mechanics, electricity, so it’s what I call multi-physics. … I’m trying to tackle those disciplines — thermal, fluid, electrical, you name it.”

The MEMS and Nanotechnology Exchange, a clearinghouse for MEMS’ interests both corporate and academic, defines MEMS as “the integration of mechanical elements, sensors, actuators and electronics on a common silicon substrate through microfabrication technology.”

Sensors gather physical data, which is processed by the chips’ electronics and, through some decision-making capability, directs a response.

Take, for example, MEMS uses for air bags in cars. Vehicles have a complicated system of components, including sensors, that triggers the deployment of the safety device, Younis said. His work takes the sensor mechanism a step further, suggesting that car companies could build a single device, using MEMS technology, that would simultaneously sense the change in acceleration and trigger the air bag.

The MEMS components could be programmed to expect certain velocities as the driver naturally starts, stops and drives. But an impact that suddenly halts a high velocity, such as a crash, could interrupt the MEMS system. That interruption could cause the chip to trigger an air bag.


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