Walk into a dark room and flip a light switch on.
This simple action connected an electrical circuit and caused a light to illuminate the room. That switch is a mechanical relay. Relays are fundamental building blocks that allow circuits to be operated and are found in every day products. At GE Global Research, we miniaturized the relay using MEMS technology to create ultra small switches (about the width of a single hair strand) that are able to turn electrical systems, such as a light bulb, on and off. Historically, MEMS devices have been made to sense or control signals. Our MEMS microswitch is able to switch and control power; not just signal power but hundreds of watts, even kilowatts of power.
Now MEMS switches are nothing new, people have been researching and developing this technology for well over a decade. What we have done at Global Research is develop the materials, the designs and the fabrication techniques that extend this miniature switching technology’s power handling capability by nearly 2 orders of magnitude. This enables our MEMS microswitch devices to serve a wide range of applications from handheld electronics such as cell phones, to relays that control lighting and even electrical protection devices such as circuit breakers.
Last week we gave you a glimpse into how we make these metal MEMS devices in a cleanroom. We fabricate these metal MEMS switches on silicon wafers for applications that require higher power (relays) and we fabricate these switches on quartz wafers for applications that require higher signal frequency (RF communications). On a single small chip we are able to pack hundreds of microscopic relays together that work in unison to switch up to 500V and control a few amperes of current. Also, because we miniaturized the relay to be smaller than a human hair it is 1000 times faster than traditional mechanical relays while still retaining the low on state resistance of a mechanical relay.
Imagine what you can do with ultra small switches . . . where can they go? . . . what can they control?. . . We are doing just that every day in our labs at GE Global Research. Now, we are investigating how to apply this technology to improve energy, healthcare and infrastructure challenges facing today’s world.
In following video, we take you inside our lab to show you how these relays are so small, yet so powerful. Take a look and let us know what you think. Where would you use switches like these?