Sensors and sensibility

OTTAWA — “Convergence,” one of the technology industry’s most enduring buzzwords, is taking root in the microsystems sector, where sensor systems are having an impact on photonics, optics, fluidics and even mechanical and biological technology.

Integrating these technologies presents lots of opportunities, but also lots of challenges, not least of which is bridging the gaps of knowledge and understanding between the different technological areas and some of their applications, experts told the CMC Microsystems 2006 Annual Symposium this week.

Keynote speaker Dr. Alessandro Cremonesi pointed to opportunities in the marriage of microelectronics with these other technologies. Dr. Cremonesi, vice-president of the strategy and systems technology group and general manager of advanced technology at STMicroelectronics, a semiconductor firm based in Geneva, called it “more than Moore,” with a nod to Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore.

Some examples of this “more than Moore” convergence include digital cameras that combine electronics and optics in a single “system on a chip,” and the combination of electronics with fluidics and biotechnology to develop devices for the health-care sector.

Those devices include sensors that can monitor a patient’s vital signs and integrated analysis tools like the dotLab System from Axela Biosensors Inc. of Toronto, whose president and chief operating officer, Rocky Ganske, also spoke at the CMC Symposium.

Sensors on today’s cars can spot mechanical problems before they become noticeable and alert the owner to have them fixed, Dr. Cremonesi said, yet we don’t do the same thing with our own bodies. Integrated microsystems technologies have the potential to make that possible, he suggested.

However, Dr. Bozena Kaminska, Canada Research Chair in wireless sensor networks at Simon Fraser University School of Engineering Sciences in Vancouver, pointed out a pitfall on the way to microsystems revolutionizing health care. Engineers don’t always fully understand the needs of medicine, she said.

Dr. Kaminska works with ballistocardiography, which can identify signs of heart problems before they reach a point that a more common electrocardiogram would catch. She explained how she tried using modern wireless sensors, but had to revert to older, bulkier analogue equipment.

The digital wireless devices passed all the tests and appeared to work, Dr. Kaminska said, but in real-world use the data recorded “started to drift” and became useless. She described the problem as an example of technology people needing not only to subject their devices to tests but to understand thoroughly what users need and make sure the technology can really deliver.

Collaboration between disciplines helps, she said, but really engineers need to have a personal understanding of the applications of their technology.

In another example of electronics coming together with other technologies to address health-care needs, Dr. David Juncker, Canada Research Chair in micro and nanobioengineering at McGill University’s Biomedical Engineering Department, described development of a microfluidic capillary system that can deliver fluids into an integrated chip for analysis.

Dr. Cremonesi suggested work like this could address a new frontier in microsystems. Where much of the focus in recent years has been on information and communications, he said, it could shift in future to prolonging human life.


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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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