Tiny, But Mighty: Breakthroughs In Powerful Micro Hardware

ASTAR_Dr Zhu Yao_1000X500Dr Zhu Yao is Head of Department, MEMS (Micro Electro Multiphysical Systems) at A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics

Meet Dr Zhu Yao, a trailblazing researcher whose journey was fueled by the A*STAR Graduate Scholarship (AGS). With an interdisciplinary background in the Integrative Sciences and Engineering PhD Programme at the Nanyang Technological University, she now leads groundbreaking research at A*STAR's Institute of Microelectronics (IME), driving advancements in powerful and efficient micro hardware with wide-ranging applications.

In this article, Dr. Zhu shares insights into her team's work, addressing societal needs and promoting sustainability through innovative microelectronics.

Q. Tell us about your team at A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME).

A. I’m the head of a department called Micro Electro Multiphysical Systems, leading a team of 35 researchers. Our role is to make tiny high-performing and power-efficient devices that bridge between real world and the digitalised world.

Q. What are you working on that addresses key societal problems, such as the needs of a rapidly ageing population in Singapore?

A. Our current focus is on creating a lightweight portable ultrasound device designed specifically for homecare. This innovative device enables nurses to conduct ultrasound imaging on organs like the abdomen, lungs, and heart with ease and precision. Unlike traditional ultrasound machines, which are known for their large size and high costs, our device boasts a compact design that can be carried effortlessly by nurses and is conveniently charged using a USB cable.

The device will also incorporate artificial intelligence to assist with the reading of images, further enhancing its diagnostic capabilities. The integration of telemedicine capabilities will allow nurses and caregivers to remotely share the captured imaging with doctors, facilitating seamless collaboration and efficient consultations.

One of the significant advantages of our device is its affordability, made possible by inexpensive semiconductors. As a result, the device is expected to be priced at a fraction of conventional ultrasound machines, making it accessible to a broader demographic.

Q. Your work in improving population health is truly commendable. Are there any ongoing projects in your research that also contribute to sustainability efforts, benefiting our planet's health?

A. We're actively working on enhancing sustainability in sensors. Many existing sensors consume excessive power even during sleep mode. To address this, we're developing a power-efficient device that serves as both a sensor and an event-driven power switch.

For instance, in a conference venue, our device sends sensors into sleep mode when the venue is empty, activating them only during specific events like traffic in the room. This innovation aims to significantly reduce electricity consumption and contribute to a more sustainable future.

Indeed, semiconductors, which are instrumental in our device designs, play a crucial role in enabling diverse applications, from consumer electronics to industrial machinery and automotive systems, thus opening endless possibilities for technological advancements.

Q. In 2022, you were the only researcher amongst three winners for the SEMI MEMS & Sensors Industry Group (MSIG) Emerging Leaders Award. What was your X factor?

A. The contributing X factor that led to my winning the award was our strong collaboration with the private sector at IME. Notably, my team and I partnered with semiconductor giant STMicroelectronics, on Lab-in-Fab. This unique R&D line seamlessly translates innovative lab ideas into practical manufacturing processes.

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Lab-in-Fab focuses on the MEMS (Micro Electro-Mechanical System) technology, a cost-effective yet high-precision chip-based technology used in various industries. Our goal is to accelerate the transformation of proof-of-concept into real-world applications, particularly in the field of Piezoelectric MEMS technologies. Piezo MEMS are minuscule devices that leverage unique materials capable of converting mechanical movements into electrical signals and vice versa. These technologies hold immense potential in diverse areas such as 3D printing, virtual reality, wearables, and healthcare.

In essence, our multifaceted work at MEMS reflects the far-reaching impact of microelectronics, from revolutionising healthcare to transforming urban solutions and eldercare.