GE spins out MEMS startup: wants cheaper power switches

December 12, 2016 // By Julien Happich
Last week, GE Ventures, Microsemi, Corning and Paladin Capital Group jointly launched MEMS startup Menlo Micro, investing a total of $18.7 million in the brand new company.

The newly formed company will expand General Electric’s unique Digital-Micro-Switch (DMS) platform to broader markets across multiple industries. The novel MEMS-based high power handling switch technology has been in the R&D stage for the last 12 years at GE who has been using it in its MRI systems for two years now.

EE Times Europe caught up with Menlo Micro's CEO, Russ Garcia so he would share the story behind that launch. What MEMS technology are we looking at and why couldn't GE keep this in house?

Garcia unfolded the story "Mechanical switches have been around for a long time, they can handle quite a lot of power, hundreds of volts and tens of amps. But they are bulky and expensive. SiC solid state switches have their own set of issues, they draw a lot of current and heat dissipation is also problem. GE being a power company, it uses a lot of power switches. About ten to twelve years ago, well before industrial IoT was popular, the company had a vision. What if we could make remotely programmable circuit breakers? "

"GE started looking for a source of commercially available remotely programmable circuit breakers but it couldn't find any. It characterized all the MEMS switches available at the time but the reliability wasn't there. Basically, GE's engineers determined the failure mechanisms of the MEMS switches, the material fatigue, the stiction, and they figured out they had to solve the problem themselves. GE pooled its resources in house, the metallurgists from making fins for turbine engines and semiconductor physicists, it needed high power with RF performance and billions of switching events", continued Garcia.

"The result was a new material solution that solved the reliability issue and could switch high power with a very low 'on' resistance and very low losses. They developed the technology from scratch, and tens of thousands of pieces were shipped inside GE. The first application was a PIN diode replacement in a MRI coil, handling hundreds of watts", Garcia told EE Times Europe.

"But remember that originally, GE was looking for an external supplier, because the company is not a components supplier, it is a systems supplier. By spinning out a dedicated company, it wants the technology to be scaled to many other applications and benefit from the unit cost reduction when the switch will be produced in large volumes".