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A High Force Low Area MEMS Thermal Actuator

Michael J. Sinclair
Microsoft Research
Microsoft Corporation
One Microsoft Way, Redmond, WA 98052
Phone: (425) 703-8343
Fax: (425) 936-7329
Email: sinclair@,


This paper presents a new type of MEMS (micro-electro- Most batch fabricated micro-mechanical systems require on-
mechanical systems) actuator consisting of an array of in- chip movement of microstructures, either by outside forces
plane micro-fabricated thermal buckle-beam actuators. The (pressure, acceleration) or put into motion by on-chip
technology used in MEMS actuators is typically magnetic, actuators. The desired attributes of an intemal actuator are
electrostatic or thermal. Magnetic actuators may require small chip real estate, large deflection (>lOpm) and an
special materials in the fabrication process while electrostatic electrical requirement compatible with today’s CMOS
actuators typically require high voltages, large chip areas and circuitry. MEMS actuators are typically used for either one-
produce very low forces. Thermal actuators have seen some time deployment of structures for automatic assembly, an in-
use in MEMS applications, the most popular being the use adjustment such as focusing or tweaking an optical
pseudo-bimorph that relies on differential expansion of a cold parameter or constant periodic actuation as in the case of
and hot arm to cause it to bend in-plane (parallel to the micro-optic scanners. Electrostatic actuators rely on the
substrate). These thermal actuators typically generate on the attractive forces between oppositely charged conductors in
order of a few micro-Newtons each but can be combined for close proximity. Magnetic actuation uses the force of
larger forces by linking with small tendons. A disadvantage of attraction or repulsion between a magnetic field produced by
this type of actuator is that it moves in an arc where most an electric current and a magnetic material or other
desired movements are linear. Also, when combined in an electromagnet. These are typically relegated to laboratory
array, the linking tendons consume much of the energy in research, as they usually require exotic fabrications steps.
bending them. Also, arrays of these can still occupy a fairly Electro-thermal actuators rely on the joule heating and
large chip area. resulting small mechanical expansion of a conductor when a
current is passed through it.
The electro-thermal actuator described here resembles a
chevron where an array of buckle-beams are packed close One of the most popular actuators in the MEMS community is
together and link two common anchored arms with a movable the electrostatic comb drive. This type of actuator can produce
third arm. Arrays can be made within a single released a force of .0059 nN/volt2 per comb-finger height (ym) 113. A
micromachined layer and generate many mN of force. 100 finger, 2 pm thick comb drive occupies a chip area of
Additional actuators can be arrayed with no coupling penalty about 0.15 square mm and will produce an output force of
and occupy much less area that an equivalent pseudo-bimorph around 3 pN with a 50 volt drive at negligible current. This
actuator. Preliminary tests indicate that a 450 x 120 pm array yields an actuator force density of about 20 pN per square
consumes 240 mW of power, deflection up to 14 pm and can mm. Proportionately higher forces can be achieved with
produce many milli-Newtons. A chip of actuator geometry higher aspect ratio structures. Advantages of the electrostatic
variations and different applications has been fabricated and actuator are small actuation energy and relatively high
tested. frequency response. Disadvantages are high drive voltage,
large area and low output force.
Key Words: MEMS, micro-electro-mechanical systems,
thermal actuator, buckle-beam Conversely, employing the thermal actuator array proposed by
Reid [2], one can achieve about 450 pN per square mm of
MEMS chip area. The electrical power required is 3.87 m W
per pN. These actuators depend on the differential thermal
expansion of two polysilicon arms to produce a pseudo-
bimorph that deflects in an arc. For an array, these devices
may be coupled to a beam through bending yokes. These
yokes however, consume much of the force output of their

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actuators just in their bending. The coupling of two or more
actuators to a common beam produces a linear movement -
usually desired in MEMS systems. The actuator array
presented here consists of only one thermal expansion beam
per actuator and can produce about 3700 pN per square mm
and 1.53 mW per pN. As structures become more
complicated, especially in the case of free-space optical
devices [3], the one-time deployment required for assembly
becomes more important and reliant on high-force, low-area
actuators. Many of the deployment actuators today are of the
comb drive type and typically occupy many times the area of
the device they are deploying.

DEVICE FABRICATION Figure 2. Single buckle-beam actuator. The applied voltage

causes ohmic heating and expansion between the two fixed
The tested actuators were fabricated using the Multi-User anchors, buckling the beam at the midpoint.
MEMS Processes (MUMPs) [4]. MUMPs is a surface
micromachining process employing a substrate, an insulating (parallel to the substrate). The actuator displacement d is given
nitride layer and three structural polysilicon layers separated by
by two sacrificial oxide layers as shown in Fig. 1, The second d = [ Z2 + 2 ( I ) I' - 1 ~ o s ( a ) ~ - 1 sin(a)
1.Spm 2.Opm 0.5pm where 1 is the single beam length (buckle-beam half-length)
I' is the elongation of the beam due to thermal
expansion and
a is the pre-bend angle of the beam.

the coefficient of thermal expansion used for polysilicon is

2 . 3 3 1~O-6f'C.

The buckle-beam heating temperature was kept below 800 'C

to prevent self-annealing which can cause irreversible damage.
Figure 1. Cross-section view of the MUMPs fabrication It should be noted that a buckle-beam can be fabricated out of
process showing three polysilicon layers with a single anchor either or both of the MUMPs polysilicon released layers
point. giving a possible actuator thickness of 1.5, 2.0 or 3.5 pm. All
that is required of the fabrication process is that it include at
and third polysilicon layers (Poly1 and Poly2) are both least one releasable layer with a positive temperature
releasable to act as movable structures. A 0.5pm gold layer coefficient of expansion and capable of carrying a current for
can be pattem-deposited on the Poly2 layer for optical ohmic heating.
reflection or increased conductivity. The final step performed
is an HF etch of the intervening sacrificial oxide layers and Arrays of buckle-beam devices can be easily designed by
subsequent drying. As is the problem with many MEMS arranging them in a pattern resembling a chevron as shown in
devices, stiction can and does occur between released layers. Fig. 3. A center beam is added to stiffen the midpoint and
Movement by the high-force thermal actuators usually releases allow mechanical coupling of the individual beams as well as
the offending structure. This is not always the case in stuck providing a method of transmitting the linear force to another
electrostatic actuators that have to be freed manually. device. There is no theoretical limit to the number of beams
added as long as the device and conductors can handle the
current and heat, the beams can lose heat rapidly and there is
ACTUATOR DESIGN no cross coupling of heat from one beam to another. Most of
the actuator arrays explored in this paper consist of pairs of
The design is based on an in-plane buckle-beam actuator [SI, 218 pm half-beams in varying number and thickness. This
[6] as shown in Fig. 2. As a voltage is applied between the length was chosen for reasons of published optimum
mechanical anchors, ohmic heating of the two half-beams configuration for other thermal actuators using the MUMPS
causes them to expand and ultimately buckle. The resistivity process [2].
of polysilicon allows the actuator to operate at voltages and
currents compatible with standard integrated circuitry If more than one actuator array is connected (mechanically
(CMOS). The beam is normally designed with a pre-bend and electrically) to a single micro-structure, care must be
angle a so buckling will have an affinity to move in-plane taken to eliminate any common mode currents that arise when
the actuators are excited differently, Fig. 4 shows an

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Force Work Coupling
Beam A CAD image for a typical actuator is shown in Fig. 5 with a
buckle-beam cross-section shown in Fig. 6 . In this case, linear
capture bearings were added to prevent the center coupling
beam from deflecting or buckling out-of-plane. As the pre-bias
angle is usually very small, on the order of a fraction of a
degree, it was thought that there would be a tendency for the
beams to buckle away from the substrate. This was not the
case in most observed tests, unless the center beam was
constrained to move in the desired direction. In test cases

Figure 3. An array of four buckle-beam actuators with the 2 x 2 x 200 nm Capture connection
addition of a coupling beam. The output force is linear - four polysilicon beam. \
times that of a single actuator,


Bending beam \Calibrated stops to

for force measurment truncate bending bemm

Figure 5 . CAD image of a typical chevron actuator array. Note

the capture bearings used to prevent the buckle-beams from
deflecting out-of-plane.

2x2 um polysilicon
buckle beam Coupling
I 1 I
Figure 4. Alternative connection methods to minimize cross
currents. If more than one actuator array is connected to a
microstructure, the common-mode current must be minimized
or damage could result. Dimple Nitride Substrate -

alternative method of electrical connection to the buckle-beam

Figure 6. Cross-section view of the actuator array of Fig. 5 .
array that can help eliminate this problem. The current in Fig.
Note the dimple bearing used to reduce stiction.
3 passes from one anchor to the other, placing the center-
coipling beam at the half-resistanceholtagk point. The current
shown in Fig. 4 is fed from both anchors toward the coupling where the pre-bias angle was zero, most actuators attempted to
beam, which is at ground or a common mode potential. This buckle out-of-plane. Also shown in Fig. 5 is the vernier used
to measure the actuator’s deflection and has a resolution of
alternate connection could also be used to cause unequal
currents to flow in both halves of the array, moving the center about 0.5 pm. Note also the force measuring bending-beam
coupling beam a small distance either way and orthogonal to and the calibrated backing structure. In operation, the actuator
the primary displacement direction. This action is presently first moves, un-forced, by 2 pm where it then comes in contact
being explored in an application where the smaller with the force measurement beam. Using a micromanipulator
displacement can be used to accurately position an external probe, one can mechanically “short out” a section of the
structure clamped by the larger displacement. bending-beam in 4 pm increments, resulting in a stiffer or
higher applied force on the actuator. Unfortunately, the beam
wasn’t stiff enough as most actuators exceeded expectations in
output force and often broke the force bending-beam. Data
had to be gathered from actuators in which a number of buckle
beams were physically removed to reduce the force to a

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measurable quantity. The full array response can be predicted applied force. A low frequency square wave excitation signal
as the forces from each buckle-beam add linearly. was then applied to the actuator through its connection pads
and deflection noted by observing the vernier with a
A feature used and shown in Fig. 6 is a dimple bearing microscope.
available in the MUMPs process. As was stated earlier,
stiction can prevent structures from moving where they are in The actuators exhibited an output force proportional to the
contact with the nitride layer. 0.5 pm dimples help reduce the number of buckle-beams, actuator layer thickness and pre-
surface area of released polysilicon structures that would bend angle. The measured unforced deflection was dependent
normally have contact with the nitride layer. Fig. 7 is a on actuation voltage, beam length and pre-bend angle and not
photomicrograph of the actuator depicted in Fig. 5. on actuator thickness or number of beam-pairs. The resistance
was predictably proportional to the beam length and inversely
proportional to the beam thickness and number of beams per

A graph of actuator deflection for various pre-bend angles is

shown in Fig. 8. The data was taken from a number of 2 pm
thick structures at two different applied forces by selecting
force beam lengths of 130 and 60 pm. It can be seen (and
predicted) that actuators with a small pre-bend angle (<OS
degrees) exhibited little or no deflection and hence little output
force. For very small pre-bend angles, the actuator sometimes
refused to move in-plane and, instead, buckled out-of-plane.
Predictably, with larger pre-bend angles, the deflection was
reduced but the available force increased. Fig. 8 also indicates
Figure 7. Photomicrograph of a chevron actuator array. The that, for a 60 pm force beam, the.optima1 pre-bend is around 1
probe at the bottom is used to shorten the force-measuring
beam to 60 pm
! i
The actuator is deflected about 7 pm. A probe is shown
shortening the 130 pm force beam to 60 pm. By measuring
the deflection of the bending-beam, the applied force can be
computed. Note that the applied force is not the same as the

total force capability of the actuator. For small deflections of -130 um force
the force beam, the applied force is calculated [2] beam
-60 um force
F = Etdw3 beam
4 i3

where F = applied force

E = Young’s modulus 160 Gpa [7]
t = beam thickness in pm
w = beam width in pm 0 1 2 3
1 =beam length in pm Pre-bend Angle (degrees)

TEST RESULTS Figure 8. Deflection distance vs. pre-bend angle results for
2.0 pm thick polysilicon actuators. Two different force-
Variations in actuator geometry design were explored in an measuring beam lengths were used.
attempt to discover optimal actuator configuration. Tested
values included pre-bend angle, actuator thickness, beam degree for maximum deflection, Fig. 9 is a graph of deflection
length, excitation power, and number of beams per array. for a series of 2 pm actuators with various pre-bend and
Measurements were made by placing the released MUMPs die excitation voltages. It indicates that the actuators exhibit a
on a probe station. Microprobes were used to connect to the linear response when the excitation is above 2 volts. The slope
chip by contacting the bonding pads designed in the devices. of the curves indicates the higher the pre-bend angle, the lower
A finction generator and amplifier were used as the excitation the deflection.
source with an oscilloscope monitoring the terminal voltage.
Observations were made through the probe station’s Deflection response was measured in all actuators to be
microscope. In operation, a probe was positioned against the around 2KHz. This was measured by increasing the excitation
force measuring bending-beam at the required length for the frequency until the measured deflection fell to half the

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I Deflection vs Actuation Voltage for Actuators with

Different Pre-bend Angles
II The photomicrograph in Fig. 10 is an example of a gear motor
powered by two actuator arrays. in this application, the
1 ’ 2 1 I I *pre-bend=.524
actuators are connected similarly to that shown in Fig. 4 in
order to reduce the common mode current when driving the
actuators from different sources. The actuators were excited in
-pre-bend=l.O5 phase quadrature. This phase difference causes the linear
deg drive gear to move in a circular motion, meshing about half of
the time with the larger circular gear. Square wave signals
+pre-bend=1.31 1 such as the output from CMOS digital circuitry may also be
deg used to actuate this motor. If the amplitude is adjusted
properly, the drive gear will advance the circular gear by one
-pre-bend=l.83 tooth for each four-phase period. The result is similar to a
four-phase stepper motor, though only one phase produces
gear drive. The motor is capable of speeds around 1,600 rpm.
Another application is a linear rack drive where the actuators
are used to advance a beam through friction and can be used to
deploy MEMS out-of-plane devices such as those used in free-

I o
Actuation (volts)
IC space optical systems.

Figure 9. Actuator deflection vs. excitation voltage. All

actuators appear to be linear for excitations greater than 2
volts. The slope is pre-bend angle dependent.

maximum amplitude. Preliminary tests indicate that an order

of magnitude increase in usable actuation frequency can be
realized by using a mechanically high-Q structure operating at


These actuators can be used almost anywhere MEMS linear

motion is required. They produce high force though consume
considerable power. The small deflection (-10 Fm) can be
extended through leverage, gearing or clutcWfriction drive. As
was stated previously, the force output exceeded expectations,
as the force bending-beam was not designed strong enough. In
order to obtain a meaningful force measurement, all but two
buckle-beams were removed from a 2 pactuator with a pre-
bend of 1.OS degrees. The modified actuator was able to bend
a 68 pm force-measuring beam by 3 p.This corresponds to
a force of about 20 pN or 5 pN per single beam (one half of a
buckle-beam). This value is equivalent to the force obtained
from a single pseudo bi-morph actuator described by Reid, et.
al. [2]. Using the technique described here, a buckle-beam
actuator array consisting of 48 two pm thick beams would
have an output force of around 240 pN and occupy an area of
65,OO sq. pm. This same force would require an array of
pseudo bi-morph devices occupying 533,000 sq. pm of chip
real estate or 12,000,000 sq. pm for an electrostatic actuator Figure 10. Photomicrograph of a thermally actuated gear
array. Future work will consist of exploring other geometry motor. The actuators are connected in a common mode
variations of these actuators such as longer beam lengths, configuration and excited with two sources in phase
beam-to-beam spacing and methods to avoid out-of-plane quadrature that causes the drive gear to move in a circular
buckling. Applications will include deployment systems for pattern.
optical devices, rotary motion, mirror scanners and other
display devices.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY [4] D. Koester, R. Mahedevan, A. Shishkoff, and K. Marcus,
“MUMPS Design Handbook,” rev. 4 , Cronos Integrated
[I] W. YE, S. Mukherjee, N. MacDonald, “Optimal Shape Microsystems, 302 1 Comwallis Rd, Research Triangle Park,
Design of an Electrostatic Comb Drive in Micro-Electro- NC 27709, httr,://www.memsrus,com/cronos/MUMPs.pdf.,
Mechanical Systems,” NSF research report under grant ECS- May 1999.
9321508. [ 5 ] L. Que, J. Park, and Y. Gianchandani, “Bent-Beam
Electro-Thermal Actuators for High Force Applications,”
[2] J. Reid, V. Bright, J. Comtois, “Force Measurements of a IEEE MEMS ’99Conference, Orlando, FL, pp. 31-36, 1999.
Polysilicon Thermal Micro-Actuator, ” Proc. SPIE, vol. 2882,
pp. 296-306, 1997. [6] R. Cragunand and L. Howell, “Linear Thennomechanical
Microactuators,” MEMS 1999, vol. I , Nashville, TN. pp. 181-
131 M. Wu, “Micromachining for Optical and Optoelectronic 188, Nov., 1999.
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1977. [7] “MEMS Material Database,” MEMS Clearinghouse,


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