Miniature inchworm actuators that would have relatively simple designs have been proposed for applications in which there are requirements for displacements of the order of microns or tens of microns and for the ability to hold their positions when electric power is not applied. The proposed actuators would be members of the class of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), but would be designed and fabricated following an approach that is somewhat unusual for MEMS.
Like other MEMS actuators, the proposed inchworm actuators could utilize thermoplastic, bimetallic, shape-memory-alloy, or piezoelectric actuation principles. The figure depicts a piezoelectric inchworm actuator according to the proposal. As in other inchworm actuators, linear motion of an extensible member would be achieved by lengthening and shortening the extensible member in synchronism with alternately clamping and releasing one and then the other end of the member. In this case, the moving member would be the middle one; the member would be piezoelectric and would be shortened by applying a voltage to it. The two outer members would also be piezoelectric; the release of the clamps on the upper or lower end would be achieved by applying a voltage to the electrodes on the upper or lower ends, respectively, of these members.
Usually, MEMS actuators cannot be fabricated directly on the side walls of silicon wafers, yet the geometry of this actuator necessitates such fabrication. The solution, according to the proposal, would be to use the microfabrication technique known by the German acronym LIGA - "lithographie, galvanoformung, abformung," which means lithography, electroforming, molding. LIGA involves x-ray lithography of a polymer film followed by selective removal of material to form a three-dimensional pattern from which a mold is made. Among the advantages of LIGA for this purpose are that it is applicable to a broad range of materials, can be used to implement a variety of designs, including those of structures >1 mm high, affords submicron precision, and is amenable to mass production at relatively low unit cost.
Fabrication of the proposed actuators would involve some technological risks - in particular, in the integration of electrode connection lines and placement of actuator elements. It will also be necessary to perform an intensive study of the feasibility of growing piezoelectric crystals onto LIGA molds.
This work was done by Eui-Hyeok Yang of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.