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  New WSU lab opens for business amid high hopes

WSU's clean room will allow companies without vast research facilities to bring new products to market.

Aug 25, 2003 - Metro Detroit is synonymous with big, eye-catching machines, but it aims to become a leader in mechanical systems too minute even for the naked eye.

Wayne State University is doing its part. WSU on Sept. 1 is inving companies working with microelectricalmechanical systems (MEMS) to begin using its recently opened clean room to test and develop products ranging from eye implants for the blind to tail-pipe emissions monitors for automobiles. The university has not identified potential users, but officials have high hopes for the facility.

"This will have a strong impact in making Southeastern Michigan a leader in this technology," said Michel Sultan, manager of the devices group at Delphi Research Lab. Delphi Corp. is a partner with WSU in the creating the clean room.

"Once the area is known for MEMS and the ability to be innovative, it is good for all of us, just as you know Silicon Valley is where you go for silicon technology."

WSU's clean room will allow companies without vast research facilities to bring new products to market.

"This is a new dimension for basic research for MEMS," said Greg Auner, WSU professor of electrical and computer engineering. "We would go up to production from the standpoint of them being able to do all the feasibility and parameters that they would need."

The clean-room lab will bring together scientists, students, engineers and business leaders. By increasing the number of people educated in the field, ideas and applications are expected to grow exponentially.

"This will have a tremendous impact," said Abhilash Pandya, a doctoral student and leader of the SSIM robotic's group. "There are a lot of companies that want to use this technology to develop products. There is a mixing together (of academia and business), each leveraging each other's expertise."

The range of possibilities is almost endless, from biomedicine to space technology. The MEMS field could have a more far-reaching effect than computer chips had a generation ago. Uses include everything from monitoring the weather to sounding alarms for homeland security. Where computers involve person-to-person sharing of information, MEMS technology is producing senors that share information.

The WSU clean-room lab specializes in testing non-silicone-based materials for the use in sensors, said Auner. The human body rejects silicone. In emerging products such as retina and neuron implants, other materials for MEMS are being researched and developed that the body can handle.

The clean room was unveiled in March in a partnership with Delphi, which donated $7.1 million in equipment. The auto-systems maker also assigned several of its scientists and a lab technician to the facility. The lab is as part of the Smart Senors and integrated Micro systems (SSIM) at WSU's College of engineering, which opened in 1992.

The clean room can eliminate even a speck of dust in a controlled environment. That's important when developing tiny machines with levers and parts smaller than even airborne contaminants.

The opportunity for business and students to work together is a positive step for the local job market, say officials involved in the project.

"It improves the everyday overall level of expertise," said Joseph Mantese, group manger of materials at Delphi Research Labs. "The competition makes everyone better and brings in high-salary jobs to the area. Ultimately that is good for the economy."

Metro Detroit's quantum leap from auto bodies to technology for human bodies is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Delphi announced plans last year to branch out from its core auto business to medical and other applications for MEMS.

"The same technology platform that Delphi uses in sensors, actuators and other components would have applications in a variety of consumer products," Mantese said.

Professor Auner agreed: " In a way, it's one world. You can adapt them to different structures."

Grant money has been flowing into the Detroit University's WSU engineering college to develop products that could profoundly affect lives by helping detect contaminants in the air and water in seconds rather than precious hours.

Imagine the technology that could provide instant blood analysis or control chemical or drug release. Imagine a surgeon being able to detect cancerous tumors in early stages during surgery. The SSIM lab received a $2.8 million grant from the National Institute of Health to develop monitors to detect airborne contaminants as well as a separate $3.7 million Michigan Life Science Corridor Grant. Such technology could have many applications, including testing drinking water or beach water in seconds rather than hours.

That would have been helpful for many who were forced to boil water during the recent massive power outage.

Some of SSIM lab's partners include: the Wayne State School of Medicine and the Kresge Eye Institute, Children's Hospital, and the Karmanos Cancer Institute. Delphi, Ford Motor Co., and Fraunhofer USA are major industrial partners.

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