By combining electrical and mechanical elements in a device that can measure less than the width of a single human hair, MEMS makes it possible to integrate both microelectronic circuits and mechanical structures on the same microchip.
“This breakthrough has enormous potential in a number of everyday situations and is only just starting to change our lives,” says Professor Tayfun Akin, project coordinator of the EU-funded METU-MEMS project. “Just to name a few applications, this technology is used in cars to sense a crash and deploy an airbag, while if you have a smartphone, the MEMS technology senses when you move that device, and turns the images around accordingly by sensing the Earth’s gravity. The technology also provides the sensory technology found in a Nintendo Wii console, and it enables the ink in your inkjet printer at home to be sprayed very precisely.”
Middle East Technical University (METU) in Turkey, where Prof. Akin works, has been pioneering MEMS research since the 1990s. In 2008, utilising national financing programmes, the university created the METU-MEMS centre, specifically to focus on this innovative field. METU was recently included in the Top 100 Universities by Reputation category by the UK’s Times Higher Education Supplement, and is the first and only Turkish university to have made it on to this list.
Despite some impressive successes, a need for extra funding was identified in order to hire and train more researchers and to upgrade facilities. Furthermore, it was recognised that in an effort to become more competitive, the centre needed to better integrate itself into the European Research Area (ERA) and form relationships with other leading MEMS centres.
“I think we fit nicely into this Research Potential programme,” says Prof. Akin. “We are already a world-renowned centre, and this project has helped us to become more developed by working with MEMS partners across Europe, exchanging researchers and upgrading facilities to be more compatible.” Deeper involvement in the ERA has also provided the centre with the means to participate in a wide range of related FP7 projects.
Most importantly, it has helped to significantly raise the profile of Turkish hi-tech know-how, and establish METU as an attractive destination for high-flying graduates who might otherwise be lured abroad. In this respect, EU funding has provided critical assistance in reversing the country’s science brain drain. This is something the professor, who studied in the US but chose to return to his country, feels very strongly about.
“I could have stayed in the US, but I’m so happy that I could achieve things here in Turkey, and maybe inspire others,” he says. “The funding has got us equipment but, importantly, it has also enabled us to hire young researchers. These are people who usually finish their PhDs in the US, but with the help of the funding, we are now able to offer them positions.”
All researchers want excellent research facilities, which METU now provides. But METU is also able to offer young researchers a realistic career timeframe, whereby they can see the opportunities that exist if they stay with the centre. This means that METU is now able to attract and keep the brightest and the best. Several patents have already been secured from the work carried out at the facility.
“We are competing with the state-of-the-art,” says Prof. Akin. “Turkey might not necessarily be known as a high-tech destination, but in the subjects we are working I would say we are now in the top five in the world.”
The professor’s next goal is to move from competing with the best in terms of research and prototypes to building a viable and strong MEMS industry. Through entrepreneurial spin-offs, METU is trying to build up contacts and marketing expertise. “We have just started to export some chips, and we are currently in contact with high-volume production facilities,” he says. “But all this will take time. We’re starting to show that hi-tech industry can be done in Turkey, but that for this to work, you need to invest in hi-tech. This is now accepted by many people in Turkey, including government authorities.”