Prof. Laurent Francis
Microsystems: multipurpose devices resulting from miniaturisation
Thanks to strong research efforts in system miniaturisation, it is nowadays possible to conceive new functionnalities at the micrometer and nanometer scales. Devices combining the computing power of microelectronics integrated circuits with functions based on mechanical, physical, chemical or biotechnological effects are made real. According to their scale, the microsystems are often referred to as MEMS and NEMS that stands for Micro-or Nano-Electro Mechanical Systems. Despite this reductive nomenclature, they can be designed to perform a wide variety of operations at the micro/nanoscale in the physical domain (mechanical, thermal or optical), in (bio)chemistry and with fluids. Their development is only limited by the imagination of the scientists and engineers, the available fabrication methods and the market needs.
By integrating microsystems in scientific applications and technical objects, our way to acquire and manipulate information is truly revolutionnised. Yet, there are numerous applications: rapid detection of pathogens and microbial agents or cancer markers in the field of healthcare, radio-frequency signals handling for mobile telecommunications, mechanical sensors in automobiles and planes to ensure their stability and detect crashes, ... Some applications are under strong developments : sensors for the ambient intelligence to be integrated within building, mechanical constructions or just in our daily clothes. The sensors will then be spread in our environment and able to network to transmit critical information about the environnement or even about ourself (for instance, to quickly detect a heart attack).
Microsystems have the clear advantage to be faster, more invisible, easier to integrate and more economical in terms of fabrication costs and power consumption than their macroscopic equivalent (as long as they exist !). However, their challenges become as big as they are getting smaller ! The challenging aspects of microsystems reside in a lack of generalised tools for their design and conception, the continuous need for specific micro and nanofabrication technologies, the standardisation of integration schemes at the micro and nanoscales, ... This set has to be cleared out before an eventual industrial implementation with garantees of reliability and lifetime for daily use.
Despite the challenges, microsystems have a fabulous potential to provide innovative solutions for constant issues related to various fields such as: healthcare, telecommunications, ICT (information and communication technologies), aeronautics, automotive, mechanical construction, environmental monitoring and improvement of the quality of life at large. As example, the accelerometer integrated in cars to detect crashes and open the airbag is a brilliant commercial success of a MEMS device. Other examples are found in some video displays, in mobile phones, in some medical diagnostic tools such as for diabetics, etc. ... At the horizon of 2020, in conjunction with the progress made in life sciences, one may reasonably believe that microsystems would play an essential role as cognitive interface between humans and their life environment.
Microsystems research at UCL
The research in microlectronics exists at UCL for more than 30 years. At the creation of the campus site of Louvain-la-Neuve in 1973, technical rooms called "cleanrooms" were installed in the Maxwell building. Cleanrooms have a special environnment dust free, that is necessary for the fabrication of integrated circuits. The UCL cleanrooms have been upgraded in december 2007 thanks to the NANOTIC project (http://www.nanotic.net), a research program of excellence of the Walloon region at UCL. The new infrastructure called WINFAB has been conceived to stay ahead of the competition between european academic institutes and to allow a greater opening and flexibility for the regional industries and SMEs. With a total area close to 1000 sq.m., WINFAB offers to UCL a better visibility and an impulsion to its research activites in micro and nanotechnologies.
Still in view of the reinforcement in that field, UCL has created a Microsystems Chair with the support of the Fondation Louvain. Since september 2007, Mr. Laurent FRANCIS is the holder of the Chair. He obtained from UCL the degrees of M.Eng. in material science with minor orientation in electrical engineering and the Ph.D in applied sciences, in 2001 and 2006 respectively. His Ph.D topic was related to acoustic waves biosensors and was done in close collaboration with IMEC, the microelectronics research centre in Leuven. Before joining back UCL, he spend 2 years in the RF-MEMS team of IMEC. He has now joined UCL as young academic member and is part of a research team yet active in microsystems in the electrical engineering departement.
Objectives of the Microsystems Chair
The microsystems Chair has as main objectives:
- the (in)formation about microsystems to students and researchers via regular seminars and conferences,
- a support to teaching classes of the Louvain School of Engineering in the MEMS and NEMS orientation for masters in electrical and physics engineering,
- the realisation of research projects in MEMS and NEMS and the promotion of the results acquired by the UCL researchers,
- to help local companies and industries for the implementation of microsystems in view of their needs for innovation and competitivity.