May 11, 2010

MIT researchers find a way to calculate the effects of Casimir forces on MEMS

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MIT researchers have developed a powerful new tool for calculating the effects of Casimir forces, with ramifications for both basic physics and the design of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).
One of the researchers’ most recent discoveries using the new tool was a way to arrange tiny objects so that the ordinarily attractive Casimir forces become repulsive. If engineers can design MEMS so that the Casimir forces actually prevent their moving parts from sticking together — rather than causing them to stick — it could cut down substantially on the failure rate of existing MEMS. It could also help enable new, affordable MEMS devices, like tiny medical or scientific sensors, or microfluidics devices that enable hundreds of chemical or biological experiments to be performed in parallel.
In a paper appearing this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Johnson, physics PhD students Alexander McCauley and Alejandro Rodriguez (the paper’s lead author), and John Joannopoulos, the Francis Wright Davis Professor of Physics, describe a way to solve Casimir-force equations for any number of objects, with any conceivable shape.

The researchers’ insight is that the effects of Casimir forces on objects 100 nanometers apart can be precisely modeled using objects 100,000 times as big, 100,000 times as far apart, immersed in a fluid that conducts electricity. Instead of calculating the forces exerted by tiny particles flashing into existence around the tiny objects, the researchers calculate the strength of an electromagnetic field at various points around the much larger ones. In their paper, they prove that these computations are mathematically equivalent.

For objects with odd shapes, calculating electromagnetic-field strength in a conducting fluid is still fairly complicated. But it’s eminently feasible using off-the-shelf engineering software.

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