Scientists have previously created biocompatible MEMS parts, Engel noted, but her team's method offers an advantage: it can manufacture these biocompatible parts quickly and inexpensively.
"Other methods, especially when you want to reduce the scale below a micron, can get very expensive and take a long time," Engel said.
For example, using an electron beam to create a large array of MEMS parts "might take running the machine all night, which is very costly," Engel said. "The process we reported took about 15 minutes."
As a bonus, MEMS parts made from this organic polymer are highly flexible; they may be hundreds of times more flexible than such components made from conventional materials. This flexibility could make, for example, MEMS sensors more sensitive to vibrations and MEMS motors more energy efficient, leading to better cameras and smartphones with longer battery lives.
The researchers now plan to manufacture functional devices constructed nearly entirely out of the polymer.
"If the printing processes really do allow for mass production of polymer devices, then we will be looking at the possibility of devices so cheap that they can even be disposable," Engel said.
"I think that printing processes are the technology of the future," Engel added. "It will take a bit more tweaking, but I do believe that one day it will be possible to mass-produce sophisticated sensors and actuators made of organic materials using printing."
The researchers cautioned they have not yet implanted devices based on this technology in humans, "although our technology might enable this," Engel said.
The scientists will present their findings Sept. 19 at the International Conference on Micro and Nano Engineering in London.
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