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Miniature machines Devices: Tiny gadgets, such as crash sensors in car air bags, are being developed for other big life saving jobs.

April 27, 1998By Robert S. Boyd Robert S. Boyd,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Tin louis vuitton outlet y machines no bigger than a fingernail, a grain of rice or a red blood cell have been twirling, buzzing and slithering across the pages of science fiction and laboratory benches for years.

Now these Lilliputian gadgets are beginning to enter the real world. With the success of crash sensors in automobile air bags, new micromachines are being developed to sniff anthrax or nerve gas, protect nuclear weapons and resuscitate laboratory mice.

Enthusiasts call them the advance wave of a technological revolution comparable to the introduction of microchips.

“Welcome to the microdomain a place where gravity and ine louis vuitton outlet rtia are no longer important, but the effects of atomic forces dominate,” Romig wrote in louis vuitton outlet a description of his lab’s work published on the Internet.

Sandia, along with other government and private research centers, designs “microelectronic mechanical systems” (MEMS) or “micromachines” for short.

As their name implies, these minuscule contraptions combine electronic and mechanical functions in a single device. They are etched in silicon, the raw material of computer chips, which can be engineered at scales of millionths or billionths of an inch.

But unlike a computer chip, MEMS don’t just “sit there and think,” said Karen Marcus, director of the MCNC Technology Applications Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Instead, she said a typical micromachine senses its environment, figures out what it means, and then does something useful, such as inflating an air bag, steering a ballistic missile or reporting the presence of poison gas.

The louis vuitton outlet first widespread commercial application of micromachines are the crash sensors used since the early 1990s in automobile air bags. A tenth of an inch across, these accelerometers sense a change in a car’s velocity, analyze it and flash a signal to inflate the bag in a fraction of a second.

Coming next are more advanced mini detectors that can respond to skids and roll overs, said Pontus Soderstrom, manager of advanced systems technology for Autoliv, a sensor company in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Similar motion detectors are being developed for use in computer mice and in game controllers. “No more joystick wrist for Nintendo players,” said Marcus. The Air Force wants similar technology for its missiles, she added.

Perhaps the most complex MEMS so far is “Stronglink,” a miniature padlock for nuclear weapons. To unlock it, an operator enters a 24 digit code that steers a pin through a maze, turns a set of silicon gears with teeth the size of blood cells, pops up a mirror that relays an optical signal to a switch that finally arms the bomb.