Microscale accelerometers are electronic components that can detect quick negative acceleration in a vehicle, can tell if a collision has occurred (and the severity of the collision), and are used in all airbag deployment systems. The silicon-based microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) singlehandedly changed airbag deployment in the mid-90s (from a larger, clunkier deployment system) and now the industry may be in for a new change. Researchers at Harvard have come up with a MEMS force sensor that’s made from paper — and it costs a throwaway 4 cents.

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The team presented the design at the IEEE MEMS 2011 conference last week. The new device emulates its silicon counterpart, which is also currently used to monitor building and bridge vibrations and start up hard-disk protection systems in falling laptops. Have an iPhone or a Wii? the accelerometer senses motion in those devices too.

George Whitesides, the Harvard University professor who led the study says he doesn’t currently have specific uses in mind for the paper accelerometer, but he thinks their low-cost and light weight could open up the space for its use in a host of new applications that range from gadgets to medicine. “MEMS is a wonderful technology for a number of things—digital mirrors, air bags, the safety mechanism for nuclear weapons—but you don’t find such devices in every part of the kitchen, and partially the reason is it’s too expensive,” Whitesides told the IEEE Spectrum.

In fact, surgeons could use these MEMS force sensors on the tips of laparoscopic instruments to give them a better feel of the tissue they’re handling. Paper sensors also work better than the silicon versions because they can be made using simple tools such as a paper cutter and a painting knife, while silicon MEMS sensors require complicated processes set up in a sterilized room to be made.

Silicon devices are, however, more sensitive and can measure smaller forces. Of course, the idea here was to make the sensors inexpensive so they can have vast usage — and that’s definitely been successful.


Your car’s airbag deployment systems that have used a silicon-based accelerometer all this while (well since the 90s anyway) could potentially switch to a cheaper, paper alternative.

Via IEEE Spectrum