What is microfabrication? (with photos)

Microfabrication allowed for the construction of more powerful microchips.

Microfabrication and micromachining are terms that describe the technologies and processes used in the fabrication of microscopic structures or devices. These structures can range in size from the width of a human hair to smaller than a single human cell. The ability to build such small devices has spurred technological advances in computers, consumer electronics, green energy technology, and many other fields. Microfabrication techniques vary widely depending on the device being built.

Microfabrication techniques and technologies have been used in research applications in fields ranging from microbiology to particle physics.

In the field of microfabrication, sizes are measured in micrometers. A micrometer, often known as a micron, is one thousandth of a millimeter. There are 25,400 microns in an inch. Nanotechnology is a similar field, but it deals with even smaller components.

The use of microfabricated parts was initiated by the semiconductor industry. The inventions of the transistor and the integrated circuit in the 1940s and 1950s gave rise to a trend towards miniaturization in electronics. As microfabrication techniques improved, smaller and more complex integrated circuits were built, allowing for the construction of powerful microchips.

An increasing number of industries rely on micro-manufacturing. Small machines known as microelectromechanical systems can be found in many devices, including smartphones and car airbag sensors. Fuel cells and solar panels also use microfabricated parts. Microfabrication techniques and technologies have been used in research applications in fields ranging from microbiology to particle physics.

The techniques used in a microfabrication process depend on the industry and the desired result. Most techniques are top-down approaches, meaning they start with a larger component, such as a silicon wafer, and remove from it until the final structure is created. Examples of top-down techniques used at the microscopic level include cutting, polishing, and engraving.

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Bottom-up fabrication in this field is largely experimental. In the bottom-up approach, smaller items such as atoms or molecules are used to create a larger system or device. Bottom-up techniques are used in applications intended to simulate biological structures or functions.

Many of the techniques used in microfabrication are borrowed from other disciplines. The fields of photography, optics and physics have all contributed to microtechnology. Some traditional manufacturing techniques, such as injection molding, were miniaturized and used in microfabrication.

Regardless of the technique used, fabrication at a microscopic level presents unique challenges. The small size means that a single piece of dust can render a device useless. Microfabrication labs are rooms designed to control airborne particles such as dust and microbes. Workers must wear protective clothing inside these rooms in order to avoid contaminating the microscopic parts being created.

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