Nanotechnology is the art of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale especially to build microscopic devices.  To economically build and interconnect trillions upon trillions of small and precise devices in a complex three dimension patterns we will need a manufacturing technique beyond today’s lithography which is known as Nanotechnology.  Nanotechnology is hybrid sciences combining engineering and chemistry, which manipulates atoms individually and places them in a pattern to provide a desired structure.  

What is MEMS Technology?
Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) is the integration of mechanical elements, sensors, actuators, and electronics on a common silicon substrate through microfabrication technology. While the electronics are fabricated using integrated circuit (IC) process sequences (e.g., CMOS, Bipolar, or BICMOS processes), the micromechanical components are fabricated using compatible "micromachining" processes that selectively etch away parts of the silicon wafer or add new structural layers to form the mechanical and electromechanical devices.
MEMS promises to revolutionize nearly every product category by bringing together silicon-based microelectronics with micromachining technology, making possible the realization of complete systems-on-a-chip. MEMS is an enabling technology allowing the development of smart products, augmenting the computational ability of microelectronics with the perception and control capabilities of micro sensors and microactuators and expanding the space of possible designs and applications.
Microelectronic integrated circuits can be thought of as the "brains" of a system and MEMS augments this decision-making capability with "eyes" and "arms", to allow microsystems to sense and control the environment. Sensors gather information from the environment through measuring mechanical, thermal, biological, chemical, optical, and magnetic phenomena. The electronics then process the information derived from the sensors and through some decision making capability direct the actuators to respond by moving, positioning, regulating, pumping, and filtering, thereby controlling the environment for some desired outcome or purpose. Because MEMS devices are manufactured using batch fabrication techniques similar to those used for integrated circuits, unprecedented levels of functionality, reliability, and sophistication can be placed on a small silicon chip at a relatively low cost.

The Beginner's Guide to MEMS Processing
MEMS technology is based on a number of tools and methodologies, which are used to form small structures with dimensions in the micrometer scale (one millionth of a meter). Significant parts of the technology has been adopted from integrated circuit (IC) technology. For instance, almost all devices are build on wafers of silicon, like ICs. The structures are realized in thin films of materials, like ICs. They are patterned using photolithographic methods, like ICs. There are however several processes that are not derived from IC technology, and as the technology continues to grow the gap with IC technology also grows.
There are three basic building blocks in MEMS technology, which are the ability to deposit thin films of material on a substrate, to apply a patterned mask on top of the films by photolithograpic imaging, and to etch the films selectively to the mask. A MEMS process is usually a structured sequence of these operations to form actual devices. Please follow the links below to read more about deposition, lithography and etching.
  • Deposition processes
  • Lithography
  • Etching processes


MEMS Thin Film Deposition Processes

One of the basic building blocks in MEMS processing is the ability to deposit thin films of material. In this text we assume a thin film to have a thickness anywhere between a few nanometer to about 100 micrometer. The film can subsequently be locally etched using processes described in the Lithography and Etching sections of this guide.
MEMS deposition technology can be classified in two groups:
  1. Depositions that happen because of a chemical reaction:
    • Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD)
    • Electrodeposition
    • Epitaxy
    • Thermal oxidation
These processes exploit the creation of solid materials directly from chemical reactions in gas and/or liquid compositions or with the substrate material. The solid material is usually not the only product formed by the reaction. Byproducts can include gases, liquids and even other solids.
  1. Depositions that happen because of a physical reaction:
    • Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD)
    • Casting
Common for all these processes are that the material deposited is physically moved on to the substrate. In other words, there is no chemical reaction which forms the material on the substrate. This is not completely correct for casting processes, though it is more convenient to think of them that way.
This is by no means an exhaustive list since technologies evolve continuously.

Chemical Vapor Deposition (CVD)

In this process, the substrate is placed inside a reactor to which a number of gases are supplied. The fundamental principle of the process is that a chemical reaction takes place between the source gases. The product of that reaction is a solid material with condenses on all surfaces inside the reactor.
The two most important CVD technologies in MEMS are the Low Pressure CVD (LPCVD) and Plasma Enhanced CVD (PECVD). The LPCVD process produces layers with excellent uniformity of thickness and material characteristics. The main problems with the process are the high deposition temperature (higher than 600°C) and the relatively slow deposition rate. The PECVD process can operate at lower temperatures (down to 300° C) thanks to the extra energy supplied to the gas molecules by the plasma in the reactor. However, the quality of the films tend to be inferior to processes running at higher temperatures. Secondly, most PECVD deposition systems can only deposit the material on one side of the wafers on 1 to 4 wafers at a time. LPCVD systems deposit films on both sides of at least 25 wafers at a time. A schematic diagram of a typical LPCVD reactor is shown in the figure below.


This process is also known as "electroplating" and is typically restricted to electrically conductive materials. There are basically two technologies for plating: Electroplating and Electroless plating. In the electroplating process the substrate is placed in a liquid solution (electrolyte). When an electrical potential is applied between a conducting area on the substrate and a counter electrode (usually platinum) in the liquid, a chemical redox process takes place resulting in the formation of a layer of material on the substrate and usually some gas generation at the counter electrode.
In the electroless plating process a more complex chemical solution is used, in which deposition happens spontaneously on any surface which forms a sufficiently high electrochemical potential with the solution. This process is desirable since it does not require any external electrical potential and contact to the substrate during processing. Unfortunately, it is also more difficult to control with regards to film thickness and uniformity. A schematic diagram of a typical setup for electroplating is shown in the figure below.


This technology is quite similar to what happens in CVD processes, however, if the substrate is an ordered semiconductor crystal (i.e. silicon, gallium arsenide), it is possible with this process to continue building on the substrate with the same crystallographic orientation with the substrate acting as a seed for the deposition. If an amorphous/polycrystalline substrate surface is used, the film will also be amorphous or polycrystalline.
There are several technologies for creating the conditions inside a reactor needed to support epitaxial growth, of which the most important is Vapor Phase Epitaxy (VPE). In this process, a number of gases are introduced in an induction heated reactor where only the substrate is heated. The temperature of the substrate typically must be at least 50% of the melting point of the material to be deposited.
An advantage of epitaxy is the high growth rate of material, which allows the formation of films with considerable thickness (>100µm). Epitaxy is a widely used technology for producing silicon on insulator (SOI) substrates. The technology is primarily used for deposition of silicon. A schematic diagram of a typical vapor phase epitaxial reactor is shown in the figure below.

Thermal oxidation

This is one of the most basic deposition technologies. It is simply oxidation of the substrate surface in an oxygen rich atmosphere. The temperature is raised to 800° C-1100° C to speed up the process. This is also the only deposition technology which actually consumes some of the substrate as it proceeds. The growth of the film is spurned by diffusion of oxygen into the substrate, which means the film growth is actually downwards into the substrate. As the thickness of the oxidized layer increases, the diffusion of oxygen to the substrate becomes more difficult leading to a parabolic relationship between film thickness and oxidation time for films thicker than ~100nm. This process is naturally limited to materials that can be oxidized, and it can only form films that are oxides of that material. This is the classical process used to form silicon dioxide on a silicon substrate. A schematic diagram of a typical wafer oxidation furnace is shown in the figure below.

Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD)

PVD covers a number of deposition technologies in which material is released from a source and transferred to the substrate. The two most important technologies are evaporation and sputtering.

When do I want to use PVD?

PVD comprises the standard technologies for deposition of metals. It is far more common than CVD for metals since it can be performed at lower process risk and cheaper in regards to materials cost. The quality of the films are inferior to CVD, which for metals means higher resistivity and for insulators more defects and traps. The step coverage is also not as good as CVD.
The choice of deposition method (i.e. evaporation vs. sputtering) may in many cases be arbitrary, and may depend more on what technology is available for the specific material at the time.


In evaporation the substrate is placed inside a vacuum chamber, in which a block (source) of the material to be deposited is also located. The source material is then heated to the point where it starts to boil and evaporate. The vacuum is required to allow the molecules to evaporate freely in the chamber, and they subsequently condense on all surfaces. This principle is the same for all evaporation technologies, only the method used to the heat (evaporate) the source material differs. There are two popular evaporation technologies, which are e-beam evaporation and resistive evaporation each referring to the heating method. In e-beam evaporation, an electron beam is aimed at the source material causing local heating and evaporation. In resistive evaporation, a tungsten boat, containing the source material, is heated electrically with a high current to make the material evaporate. Many materials are restrictive in terms of what evaporation method can be used (i.e. aluminum is quite difficult to evaporate using resistive heating), which typically relates to the phase transition properties of that material. A schematic diagram of a typical system for e-beam evaporation is shown in the figure below.


Sputtering is a technology in which the material is released from the source at much lower temperature than evaporation. The substrate is placed in a vacuum chamber with the source material, named a target, and an inert gas (such as argon) is introduced at low pressure. A gas plasma is struck using an RF power source, causing the gas to become ionized. The ions are accelerated towards the surface of the target, causing atoms of the source material to break off from the target in vapor form and condense on all surfaces including the substrate. As for evaporation, the basic principle of sputtering is the same for all sputtering technologies. The differences typically relate to the manor in which the ion bombardment of the target is realized. A schematic diagram of a typical RF sputtering System as shown in the figure below.


In this process the material to be deposited is dissolved in liquid form in a solvent. The material can be applied to the substrate by spraying or spinning. Once the solvent is evaporated, a thin film of the material remains on the substrate. This is particularly useful for polymer materials, which may be easily dissolved in organic solvents, and it is the common method used to apply photoresist to substrates (in photolithography). The thicknesses that can be cast on a substrate range all the way from a single monolayer of molecules (adhesion promotion) to tens of micrometers. In recent years, the casting technology has also been applied to form films of glass materials on substrates. The spin casting process is illustrated in the figure below.

Pattern Transfer
Lithography in the MEMS context is typically the transfer of a pattern to a photosensitive material by selective exposure to a radiation source such as light. A photosensitive material is a material that experiences a change in its physical properties when exposed to a radiation source. If we selectively expose a photosensitive material to radiation (e.g. by masking some of the radiation) the pattern of the radiation on the material is transferred to the material exposed, as the properties of the exposed and unexposed regions differs (as shown in figure 1).

This discussion will focus on optical lithography, which is simply lithography using a radiation source with wavelength(s) in the visible spectrum.
In lithography for micromachining, the photosensitive material used is typically a photoresist (also called resist, other photosensitive polymers are also used). When resist is exposed to a radiation source of a specific a wavelength, the chemical resistance of the resist to developer solution changes. If the resist is placed in a developer solution after selective exposure to a light source, it will etch away one of the two regions (exposed or unexposed). If the exposed material is etched away by the developer and the unexposed region is resilient, the material is considered to be a positive resist (shown in figure 2a). If the exposed material is resilient to the developer and the unexposed region is etched away, it is considered to be a negative resist (shown in figure 2b).

Lithography is the principal mechanism for pattern definition in micromachining. Photosensitive compounds are primarily organic, and do not encompass the spectrum of materials properties of interest to micro-machinists. However, as the technique is capable of producing fine features in an economic fashion, a photosensitive layer is often used as a temporary mask when etching an underlying layer, so that the pattern may be transferred to the underlying layer (shown in figure 3a). Photoresist may also be used as a template for patterning material deposited after lithography (shown in figure 3b). The resist is subsequently etched away, and the material deposited on the resist is "lifted off".
The deposition template (lift-off) approach for transferring a pattern from resist to another layer is less common than using the resist pattern as an etch mask. The reason for this is that resist is incompatible with most MEMS deposition processes, usually because it cannot withstand high temperatures and may act as a source of contamination.

Once the pattern has been transferred to another layer, the resist is usually stripped. This is often necessary as the resist may be incompatible with further micromachining steps. It also makes the topography more dramatic, which may hamper further lithography steps.

In order to form a functional MEMS structure on a substrate, it is necessary to etch the thin films previously deposited and/or the substrate itself. In general, there are two classes of etching processes:
  1. Wet etching where the material is dissolved when immersed in a chemical solution
  2. Dry etching where the material is sputtered or dissolved using reactive ions or a vapor phase etchant
In the following, we will briefly discuss the most popular technologies for wet and dry etching.

Wet etching

This is the simplest etching technology. All it requires is a container with a liquid solution that will dissolve the material in question. Unfortunately, there are complications since usually a mask is desired to selectively etch the material. One must find a mask that will not dissolve or at least etches much slower than the material to be patterned. Secondly, some single crystal materials, such as silicon, exhibit anisotropic etching in certain chemicals. Anisotropic etching in contrast to isotropic etching means different etch rates in different directions in the material. The classic example of this is the <111> crystal plane sidewalls that appear when etching a hole in a <100> silicon wafer in a chemical such as potassium hydroxide (KOH). The result is a pyramid shaped hole instead of a hole with rounded sidewalls with a isotropic etchant. The principle of anisotropic and isotropic wet etching is illustrated in the figure below. 

Dry etching

The dry etching technology can split in three separate classes called reactive ion etching (RIE), sputter etching, and vapor phase etching.
In RIE, the substrate is placed inside a reactor in which several gases are introduced. A plasma is struck in the gas mixture using an RF power source, breaking the gas molecules into ions. The ions are accelerated towards, and reacts at, the surface of the material being etched, forming another gaseous material. This is known as the chemical part of reactive ion etching. There is also a physical part which is similar in nature to the sputtering deposition process. If the ions have high enough energy, they can knock atoms out of the material to be etched without a chemical reaction. It is a very complex task to develop dry etch processes that balance chemical and physical etching, since there are many parameters to adjust. By changing the balance it is possible to influence the anisotropy of the etching, since the chemical part is isotropic and the physical part highly anisotropic the combination can form sidewalls that have shapes from rounded to vertical. A schematic of a typical reactive ion etching system is shown in the figure below.
A special subclass of RIE which continues to grow rapidly in popularity is deep RIE (DRIE). In this process, etch depths of hundreds of microns can be achieved with almost vertical sidewalls. The primary technology is based on the so-called "Bosch process", named after the German company Robert Bosch which filed the original patent, where two different gas compositions are alternated in the reactor. The first gas composition creates a polymer on the surface of the substrate, and the second gas composition etches the substrate. The polymer is immediately sputtered away by the physical part of the etching, but only on the horizontal surfaces and not the sidewalls. Since the polymer only dissolves very slowly in the chemical part of the etching, it builds up on the sidewalls and protects them from etching. As a result, etching aspect ratios of 50 to 1 can be achieved. The process can easily be used to etch completely through a silicon substrate, and etch rates are 3-4 times higher than wet etching.
Sputter etching is essentially RIE without reactive ions. The systems used are very similar in principle to sputtering deposition systems. The big difference is that substrate is now subjected to the ion bombardment instead of the material target used in sputter deposition.
Vapor phase etching is another dry etching method, which can be done with simpler equipment than what RIE requires. In this process the wafer to be etched is placed inside a chamber, in which one or more gases are introduced. The material to be etched is dissolved at the surface in a chemical reaction with the gas molecules. The two most common vapor phase etching technologies are silicon dioxide etching using hydrogen fluoride (HF) and silicon etching using xenon diflouride (XeF2), both of which are isotropic in nature. Usually, care must be taken in the design of a vapor phase process to not have bi-products form in the chemical reaction that condense on the surface and interfere with the etching process.

MEMS and Nano devices are extremely small -- for example, MEMS and Nanotechnology has made possible electrically-driven motors smaller than the diameter of a human hair (right) -- but Your browser may not support display of this image.MEMS and Nanotechnology is not primarily about size.  
MEMS and Nanotechnology is also not about making things out of silicon, even though silicon possesses excellent materials properties, which make it an attractive choice for many high-performance mechanical applications; for example, the strength-to-weight ratio for silicon is higher than many other engineering materials which allows very high-bandwidth mechanical devices to be realized.
Instead, the deep insight of MEMS and Nano is as a new manufacturing technology, a way of making complex electromechanical systems using batch fabrication techniques similar to those used for integrated circuits, and uniting these electromechanical elements together with electronics.

Advantages of MEMS and Nano Manufacturing

First, MEMS and Nanotechnology are extremely diverse technologies that could significantly affect every category of commercial and military product. MEMS and Nanotechnology are already used for tasks ranging from in-dwelling blood pressure monitoring to active suspension systems for automobiles. The nature of MEMS and Nanotechnology and its diversity of useful applications make it potentially a far more pervasive technology than even integrated circuit microchips.
Second, MEMS and Nanotechnology blurs the distinction between complex mechanical systems and integrated circuit electronics. Historically, sensors and actuators are the most costly and unreliable part of a macroscale sensor-actuator-electronics system. MEMS and Nanotechnology allows these complex electromechanical systems to be manufactured using batch fabrication techniques, decreasing the cost and increasing the reliability of the sensors and actuators to equal those of integrated circuits. Yet, even though the performance of MEMS and Nano devices is expected to be superior to macroscale components and systems, the price is predicted to be much lower.

Here are a few applications of current interest:


MEMS and Nanotechnology is enabling new discoveries in science and engineering such as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) microsystems for DNA amplification and identification, micromachined Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STMs), biochips for detection of hazardous chemical and biological agents, and microsystems for high-throughput drug screening and selection.


High frequency circuits will benefit considerably from the advent of the RF-MEMS technology. Electrical components such as inductors and tunable capacitors can be improved significantly compared to their integrated counterparts if they are made using MEMS and Nanotechnology. With the integration of such components, the performance of communication circuits will improve, while the total circuit area, power consumption and cost will be reduced. In addition, the mechanical switch, as developed by several research groups, is a key component with huge potential in various microwave circuits. The demonstrated samples of mechanical switches have quality factors much higher than anything previously available.
Reliability and packaging of RF-MEMS components seem to be the two critical issues that need to be solved before they receive wider acceptance by the market.


MEMS accelerometers are quickly replacing conventional accelerometers for crash air-bag deployment systems in automobiles. The conventional approach uses several bulky accelerometers made of discrete components mounted in the front of the car with separate electronics near the air-bag; this approach costs over $50 per automobile. MEMS and Nanotechnology has made it possible to integrate the accelerometer and electronics onto a single silicon chip at a cost between $5 to $10. These MEMS accelerometers are much smaller, more functional, lighter, more reliable, and are produced for a fraction of the cost of the conventional macroscale accelerometer elements.

MEMS and Nanotechnology is currently used in low- or medium-volume applications.
Some of the obstacles preventing its wider adoption are:

Limited Options

Most companies who wish to explore the potential of MEMS and Nanotechnology have very limited options for prototyping or manufacturing devices, and have no capability or expertise in microfabrication technology. Few companies will build their own fabrication facilities because of the high cost. A mechanism giving smaller organizations responsive and affordable access to MEMS and Nano fabrication is essential.


The packaging of MEMS devices and systems needs to improve considerably from its current primitive state. MEMS packaging is more challenging than IC packaging due to the diversity of MEMS devices and the requirement that many of these devices be in contact with their environment. Currently almost all MEMS and Nano development efforts must develop a new and specialized package for each new device. Most companies find that packaging is the single most expensive and time consuming task in their overall product development program. As for the components themselves, numerical modeling and simulation tools for MEMS packaging are virtually non-existent. Approaches which allow designers to select from a catalog of existing standardized packages for a new MEMS device without compromising performance would be beneficial.

Fabrication Knowledge Required

Currently the designer of a MEMS device requires a high level of fabrication knowledge in order to create a successful design. Often the development of even the most mundane MEMS device requires a dedicated research effort to find a suitable process sequence for fabricating it. MEMS device design needs to be separated from the complexities of the process sequence.

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