Nanoelectromechanical systems

Nanoelectromechanical systems (NEMS) are a class of devices integrating electrical and mechanical functionality on the nanoscale. NEMS form the next logical miniaturization step from so-called microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS devices. NEMS typically integrate transistor-like nanoelectronics with mechanical actuators, pumps, or motors, and may thereby form physical, biological, and chemical sensors. The name derives from typical device dimensions in the nanometer range, leading to low mass, high mechanical resonance frequencies, potentially large quantum mechanical effects such as zero point motion, and a high surface-to-volume ratio useful for surface-based sensing mechanisms.[1] Applications include accelerometers and sensors to detect chemical substances in the air.



As noted by Richard Feynman in his famous talk in 1959, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," there are many potential applications of machines at smaller and smaller sizes; by building and controlling devices at smaller scales, all technology benefits. The expected benefits include greater efficiencies and reduced size, decreased power consumption and lower costs of production in electromechanical systems.[1]

In 1960, Mohamed M. Atalla and Dawon Kahng at Bell Labs fabricated the first MOSFET with a gate oxide thickness of 100 nm.[2] In 1962, Atalla and Kahng fabricated a nanolayer-base metal–semiconductor junction (M–S junction) transistor that used gold (Au) thin films with a thickness of 10 nm.[3] In 1987, Bijan Davari led an IBM research team that demonstrated the first MOSFET with a 10 nm oxide thickness.[4] Multi-gate MOSFETs enabled scaling below 20 nm channel length, starting with the FinFET.[5] The FinFET originates from the research of Digh Hisamoto at Hitachi Central Research Laboratory in 1989.[6][7][8][9] At UC Berkeley, a group led by Hisamoto and TSMC's Chenming Hu fabricated FinFET devices down to 17 nm channel length in 1998.[5]


In 2000, the first very-large-scale integration (VLSI) NEMS device was demonstrated by researchers at IBM.[10] Its premise was an array of AFM tips which can heat/sense a deformable substrate in order to function as a memory device. Further devices have been described by Stefan de Haan.[11] In 2007, the International Technical Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS)[12] contains NEMS Memory as a new entry for the Emerging Research Devices section.

Atomic force microscopy

A key application of NEMS is atomic force microscope tips. The increased sensitivity achieved by NEMS leads to smaller and more efficient sensors to detect stresses, vibrations, forces at the atomic level, and chemical signals.[13] AFM tips and other detection at the nanoscale rely heavily on NEMS.

Approaches to miniaturization

Two complementary approaches to fabrication of NEMS can be found. The top-down approach uses the traditional microfabrication methods, i.e. optical, electron beam lithography and thermal treatments, to manufacture devices. While being limited by the resolution of these methods, it allows a large degree of control over the resulting structures. In this manner devices such as nanowires, nanorods, and patterned nanostructures are fabricated from metallic thin films or etched semiconductor layers.

Bottom-up approaches, in contrast, use the chemical properties of single molecules to cause single-molecule components to self-organize or self-assemble into some useful conformation, or rely on positional assembly. These approaches utilize the concepts of molecular self-assembly and/or molecular recognition. This allows fabrication of much smaller structures, albeit often at the cost of limited control of the fabrication process.

A combination of these approaches may also be used, in which nanoscale molecules are integrated into a top-down framework. One such example is the carbon nanotube nanomotor.


Carbon allotropes

Many of the commonly used materials for NEMS technology have been carbon based, specifically diamond,[14][15] carbon nanotubes and graphene. This is mainly because of the useful properties of carbon based materials which directly meet the needs of NEMS. The mechanical properties of carbon (such as large Young's modulus) are fundamental to the stability of NEMS while the metallic and semiconductor conductivities of carbon based materials allow them to function as transistors.

Both graphene and diamond exhibit high Young's modulus, low density, low friction, exceedingly low mechanical dissipation,[14] and large surface area.[16][17] The low friction of CNTs, allow practically frictionless bearings and has thus been a huge motivation towards practical applications of CNTs as constitutive elements in NEMS, such as nanomotors, switches, and high-frequency oscillators.[17] Carbon nanotubes and graphene's physical strength allows carbon based materials to meet higher stress demands, when common materials would normally fail and thus further support their use as a major materials in NEMS technological development.[18]

Along with the mechanical benefits of carbon based materials, the electrical properties of carbon nanotubes and graphene allow it to be used in many electrical components of NEMS. Nanotransistors have been developed for both carbon nanotubes[19] as well as graphene.[20] Transistors are one of the basic building blocks for all electronic devices, so by effectively developing usable transistors, carbon nanotubes and graphene are both very crucial to NEMS.

Metallic carbon nanotubes

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are allotropes of carbon with a cylindrical nanostructure. They can be considered a rolled up graphene. When rolled at specific and discrete ("chiral") angles, and the combination of the rolling angle and radius decides whether the nanotube has a bandgap (semiconducting) or no bandgap (metallic).

Metallic carbon nanotubes have also been proposed for nanoelectronic interconnects since they can carry high current densities.[18] This is a useful property as wires to transfer current are another basic building block of any electrical system. Carbon nanotubes have specifically found so much use in NEMS that methods have already been discovered to connect suspended carbon nanotubes to other nanostructures.[21] This allows carbon nanotubes to form complicated nanoelectric systems. Because carbon based products can be properly controlled and act as interconnects as well as transistors, they serve as a fundamental material in the electrical components of NEMS.


Despite all of the useful properties of carbon nanotubes and graphene for NEMS technology, both of these products face several hindrances to their implementation. One of the main problems is carbon’s response to real life environments. Carbon nanotubes exhibit a large change in electronic properties when exposed to oxygen.[22] Similarly, other changes to the electronic and mechanical attributes of carbon based materials must fully be explored before their implementation, especially because of their high surface area which can easily react with surrounding environments. Carbon nanotubes were also found to have varying conductivities, being either metallic or semiconducting depending on their helicity when processed.[23] Because of this, special treatment must be given to the nanotubes during processing to assure that all of the nanotubes have appropriate conductivities. Graphene also has complicated electric conductivity properties compared to traditional semiconductors because it lacks an energy band gap and essentially changes all the rules for how electrons move through a graphene based device.[20] This means that traditional constructions of electronic devices will likely not work and completely new architectures must be designed for these new electronic devices.

Biohybrid NEMS

The emerging field of bio-hybrid systems combines biological and synthetic structural elements for biomedical or robotic applications. The constituting elements of bio-nanoelectromechanical systems (BioNEMS) are of nanoscale size, for example DNA, proteins or nanostructured mechanical parts. Examples include the facile top-down nanostructuring of thiol-ene polymers to create cross-linked and mechanically robust nanostructures that are subsequently functionalized with proteins.[24]


Computer simulations have long been important counterparts to experimental studies of NEMS devices. Through continuum mechanics and molecular dynamics (MD), important behaviors of NEMS devices can be predicted via computational modeling before engaging in experiments.[25][26][27][28] Additionally, combining continuum and MD techniques enables engineers to efficiently analyze the stability of NEMS devices without resorting to ultra-fine meshes and time-intensive simulations.[25] Simulations have other advantages as well: they do not require the time and expertise associated with fabricating NEMS devices; they can effectively predict the interrelated roles of various electromechanical effects; and parametric studies can be conducted fairly readily as compared with experimental approaches. For example, computational studies have predicted the charge distributions and “pull-in” electromechanical responses of NEMS devices.[29][30][31] Using simulations to predict mechanical and electrical behavior of these devices can help optimize NEMS device design parameters.


Key hurdles currently preventing the commercial application of many NEMS devices include low-yields and high device quality variability. Before NEMS devices can actually be implemented, reasonable integrations of carbon based products must be created. A recent step in that direction has been demonstrated for diamond, achieving a processing level comparable to that of silicon.[32] The focus is currently shifting from experimental work towards practical applications and device structures that will implement and profit from such novel devices.[17] The next challenge to overcome involves understanding all of the properties of these carbon-based tools, and using the properties to make efficient and durable NEMS with low failure rates.[31]

Carbon-based materials have served as prime materials for NEMS use, because of their exceptional mechanical and electrical properties.

The global market of NEMS is projected to reach $108.88 million by 2022.[33]



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