New Microchip Could Mean Improvements In Auto Industry

August 19, 1997

A specialized microchip developed at Simon Fraser University could improve the way air bags deploy in crashes, calculate the punishment runners inflict on their knees, even build a better computer mouse.

There's a huge market for the thumbnail-sized innovation which measures acceleration, motion and vibration. The automobile industry alone uses 100 million similar devices each year.

However, prototypes of the SFU chip have proven to be 1,000 times more sensitive than current devices and could, for example, significantly improve the control of cars when skidding, or how they ride on shock absorbers.

"Current devices cost $5 to $8, when purchased in volume, but ours can be manufactured for under a dollar," reports Albert Leung, professor and director of SFU's school of engineering science, who developed the device -- a micromachined thermal accelerometer -- and led the university research project.

Leung first scribbled down his design for the better chip in 1984 on an airplane on the way to a successful job interview at SFU.

In 1995, he found time in his busy research and teaching schedule -- and the scrap of paper -- and began to develop the device with professor John Jones, graduate student Maria Pascal and research assistants Eva Czyzewska, Jiaming Chen and Bill Woods.

"Project Hot Air" is what they dubbed their work when they began two-and-a-half years ago. The name refers to the hot air bubble at the heart of the microchip and the reaction of many skeptics who told them it was impossible.

The SFU group has applied for a worldwide patent and is expecting significant benefits, but is waiting for the patent before publishing its research. The university industry liaison office provided prototype development and continues to be very involved.

"We hope the technology will be transferred to private industry," says Leung. "where sufficient research and development budgets can take advantage of the full commercial potential."

The micromachined thermal accelerometer was unveiled in Ottawa this week, where it earned the Canadian Semiconductor Design Association award.

CONTACT: Albert Leung, 291-4194/4371
Bruce Mason, media/pr, 291-3035
Media/pr's web site:

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