MicroElectroMechanical System (MEMS) RF Systems

Reconfigurable V Antenna

The projects are to develop MEMS RF/wireless architectures and components for microwave/millimeterwave applications. Components will be developed to establish key building blocks for high-frequency radar/sensors and high-speed communication systems. Components include high-performance MEMS RF switches, variable capacitors/inductors, tunable filters, impedance matching circuits, phase shifters, and nonlinear transmission lines.


MEMS Circular
Variable Capacitor

MEMS Parallel-Plate
Variable Capacitor




Beam Steerers


MEMS Reconfigurable
Vee Antenna


MEMS Planar
Impedance Tuner



J.C. Chiao
Quasi-Optical Applications
Research Projects

Proceedings of SPIE Volume: 4592,
Device and Process Technologies
for MEMS and Microelectronics II

ISBN 0-8194-4322-0

MEMS Millimeterwave Components

New microelectromechanical system (MEMS) components that enable reconfigurable MEMS millimeterwave transceivers were presented with a focus on the device architectures for system integration. The architectures for reconfigurable antennas, planar impedance tuners, microswitches and variable capacitors were demonstrated using the three-polysilicon-layer process.


Recent progress in monolithic millimeterwave active devices has made it possible for implementation of chip-scale integrated millimeterwave systems. However, due to the low output power of solid-state sources and high losses in tuning and switching elements, achievement of high-power or high-sensitivity systems is still a challenge. Efforts toward reduction of insertion losses in transmission lines and increasing of Q-factors in passive elements have shown significant improvement and great promise [1-3]. To further develop a complete millimeterwave system, reconfigurable components with low losses and high Q-factors are also needed. Microelectromechanical system (MEMS) devices, which can provide the advantages of fast actuation, low losses and high Qs, become an attractive option for RF systems [4]. As frequencies increase to millimeterwaves, the antenna and component sizes reduce to the scales of MEMS architectures, which provide for the possibility of fast actuation with low power dissipation by microactuators [5,6]. Two- and three-dimensional reconfigurable radiation and wave-guiding structures can be constructed by using metal-coated polysilicon, metal-to-metal contacts and sacrificial materials on the surface of the devices. This allows the waves to propagate and be manipulated in the free space and reduces the dielectric losses and parasitic reactance in the substrate. It also increases the Q-factors due to the low series resistance of metal.
In this work, we investigated several key components for a reconfigurable transceiver. Fig. 1 shows a system-level schematic drawing including a reconfigurable Vee-antenna, planar impedance tuners, microswitches and variable capacitors. In the architecture, flip-chip integration of monolithic millimeterwave integrated-circuits with MEMS devices is proposed. The flip-chip approach separates the fabrication of the MEMS chips and electronic circuits (RF and IF), allowing for integration of many different substrate materials, increasing of yield rates and reduction of costs. The main structures of all components were fabricated using the three-polysilicon-layer surface micromachining process offered by the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina (MCNC). Post-processing including deposition and etching of dielectric material, metal and silicon was done at the University of Hawaii - Manoa.

Figure 1: The proposed architecture of a MEMS reconfigurable transceiver.


Figure 2 shows the concept and a photo of a MEMS reconfigurable Vee-antenna. The arms of the Vee-antenna are moveable through pulling or pushing by microactuators. Each antenna arm can be controlled independently with forward- or backward-moving biases. When both antenna arms move in the same direction with a fixed Vee-angle, the antenna can be used to steer the radiation beam. When the Vee-angle changes, the radiation beam shape can be adjusted. The reconfigurability and antenna performance have been demonstrated [7]. Beam-steering at 30° and 45° and beam-shaping for Vee-angles of 75°, 90° and 120° have been demonstrated for a 17.5-GHz MEMS Vee-antenna.

Figure 2: (a) The concept and (b) top view of a MEMS reconfigurable Vee-antenna.

Figure 3: (a) The concept and (b) a prototype for a sliding backshort impedance tuner.


Figure 3 shows the concept and a photo of the planar impedance tuner. The operation principle is similar to the one for mechanical waveguide backshort tuners used in metal waveguides [8]. A sliding planar backshort plate on top of a planar transmission line forms a moveable short-circuit over a useful bandwidth. It allows a variation for the electrical length of the transmission line by varying the position of the sliding planar backshort. The planar backshort has a cascade of several sections of short-circuit separated by quarter wavelengths on the sliding plate. Lubecke demonstrated a 3-dB improvement of detector response over the untuned response at 100GHz using a quasi-optical approach and a 5-section planar backshort without electrically-controlled actuators [9]. Planar tuners on coplanar strips (CPS), shown in Fig. 3(b), and coplanar waveguide (CPW) transmission lines have been designed and fabricated to investigate the tuning characteristics and the integration of sliding planar backshort plates with microactuators.



Low insertion losses and low power dissipation for micromachining membrane-based switches, such as single-pole cantilever switches and air-gap switches, have been demonstrated. The results are very promising and have initiated many millimeterwave applications. Practical application issues for the membrane-based switches include stiction of metal or membrane, stress control and reliability of the membrane [10]. Therefore, we demonstrated new MEMS architectures for microswitches using polysilicon to construct rigid structures and microhinges [11] for mechanical movement to eliminate the bending of membrane. Figure 4 shows the concept and a photo of a see-saw-bar switch. A see-saw bar, with bias electrodes on both ends, is held by hinges on the sides of the bar. One end of the bar is attached to a metal contact pad to make connection between contacts. With biases on different bias electrodes, the metal contact can be pulled up or pushed down to open or close the connection. The rigid polysilicon bar helps prevent stiction and degradation associated with the thin-film membrane. A 4-mm air-gap was achieved with an actuation voltage of 20v. The DC series resistance is negligible and RF performance is currently under investigation. For a transceiver, it is necessary to have switches in the T/R module with high RF isolation and low insertion losses. For a membrane-based switch, it requires a tall air gap when the switch is open and a strong bending of the membrane diaphragm when the switch is closed. To achieve high isolation and a good connection, we proposed a derrick-type microswitch. Figure 5 shows the concept and a photo for a derrick-type switch. The microactuators pull away or push forward the pull/push arms which are connected on the sides of the support bar with moveable hinges. With one end of the support bar held by fixed hinges on the substrate, the moveable hinges on both ends of the pull/push arms translate the lateral movement of the actuators to a vertical movement of the support bar. A metal contact pad, attached in the end of the support bar, will be pulled up to open, or pushed down to close the interrupted transmission line. In the design, the air gap between the metal contact and the transmission line can be as high as 100mm. The measured switching time for a 100-mm gap is 150ms. The strong actuation force of scratch drive actuators [6] can provide a firm contact between metal pads. The RF performance and reduction of switching time is currently under study.

Figure 4: (a) The concept and (b) a photo for a see-saw-bar switch.

Figure 5: (a) The concept, (b) the cross section and (c) a photo of a derrick-type switch.

Figure 6: (a) The architecture of a parallel-plate variable capacitor. (b) A photo of a parallel-plate variable capacitor with 1mmx1mm parallel plates.

Figure 7: SEM photos for a parallel-plate variable capacitor with a gap spacing of (a) 100microns and (b) 1mm.

Figure 8: (a) The concept and (b) a photo of a circular parallel-plate variable capacitor.


Figure 6(a) shows the concept of a MEMS parallel-plate variable capacitor consisting of two parallel metal plates with variable gap spacings. The microactuators pull or push the support arms. The microhinges on both ends of the support arms translate the lateral movement of the microactuators to a vertical motion in order to vary the gap spacing between two metal plates. With the actuators on both sides moving toward the plate at the same time pushing the support arms up, the gap spacing is increased. With the actuators moving away from the plate, the gap spacing is reduced. The form of the device is similar to the ones in [12,13] but with different mechanical and RF design. The variable capacitance should follow the formula, C(x) = eA/x + Cp, where A is the plate size, x is the gap spacing, e is the dielectric constant of air and Cp is the parasitic capacitance. The actuators can be programmed so that not only the height of the gap is variable, but the coupling area (A) between two metal plates can also be varied for a linear operation of variable capacitance. Several parallel-plate capacitors, with plate sizes in the ranges from 100mmx100mm to 2mmx2mm, were designed and fabricated, as shown in Fig 6(b). The gap spacings can be varied between 1mm and 100microns, with an increment of 20nm, giving a dynamic range of 1:100. Fig. 7 shows the SEM pictures for the gap spacings. Preliminary results found a maximum capacitance of 35pF and a minimum capacitance of 0.5pF, measured by a low-frequency capacitance meter. The breakdown voltages of the MEMS variable capacitors should be much higher than diode varactors. The measured breakdown voltage of the MEMS capacitor is more than 200v, where the measurement was limited by the availability of high-voltage sources. A different architecture for MEMS parallel-plate capacitors is also under investigation. In some applications, the variable capacitors are not required to have a large dynamic range, but a linear operation and compact configuration. Fig. 8 shows a circular parallel-plate variable capacitor. The coupling area between the top and bottom plates can be varied by the microactuators moving in a circular motion. The top plate is held by a rotation hinge, which is electrically isolated from the bottom plate, and actuated by the circular scratch drive actuators on the edges [6]. The actuators on the opposite sides move in the opposite directions (clockwise or counter-clockwise movements), which allow the top plate to rotate ±90°. The sizes of the parallel plates are reduced to eliminate parasitic capacitance. The gap between the parallel plates is 2mm. The coupling area can be varied by an amount corresponding to a 0.5° increment in rotation angle.

We investigated several MEMS millimeterwave components for a reconfigurable transceiver, including reconfigurable Vee-antennas, planar impedance tuners, microswitches and variable capacitors. In this paper, we focused on demonstration of architectures with emphasis on integration issues. A layout database for designing various components is being established. Many of these components, such as MEMS microswitches and variable capacitors, can also be used at lower frequencies such as microwaves and UHF.


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Created by J.C. Chiao