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MEMS, or micro-electro-mechanical systems, are an amalgam of components from 1 to 100 micrometers in size, with most ranging between 20 micrometers and one millimeter. Often consisting of a central unit which processes data and several components made to interact with microsensors, these tiny machines may revolutionize the human landscape.

The seminal work of physicist Richard Feynman, notable for a lecture he delivered in 1959 entitled There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, speculated that MEMS might one day become a practical reality – if they could be constructed with modified semiconductors.

That day has arrived and a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University is 3D printing biocompatible components for use in medical devices, like, say, bionic arms.

Generally produced from silicon, the research team at TAU (Leeya Engel, Jenny Shklovsky, Professor Yosi Shacham-Diamand of the School of Electrical Engineering and Slava Krylov of the School of Mechanical Engineering) have arrived at a micro-printing method which makes MEMS biologically useful from a highly flexible and non-toxic organic polymer.

MEMS actuators are used to carry out commands by converting electrical signals into movement and when integrated into membranes, they can measure or produce movement.

This sort of component process and materials handling came straight out of the semiconductor industry, but the TAU printing process yields a rubbery, super-thin membranes of organic polymer construction. It's the specific properties of the TAU material which make it suitable for micro and nano-scale sensors and actuators. And perhaps most importantly, this new polymer membrane is suitable for implantation in the human body.

The researchers say these MEMS constructed from the polymer membranes have the potential to make prosthetics more comfortable, efficient, and safe for use inside the human body.

"Introducing polymer MEMS to industry can only be realized with the development of printing technologies that allow for low cost mass production," Engel said. "The team's new polymer membranes can already be quickly and inexpensively produced."

According to Engel, the next area of research the team will address is attempting to use the 3D printing process to make functional sensors and actuators entirely from this new polymer.

She added that this type of "flexible machine" could one day be used to manufacture artificial muscles, or indeed, tiny screens which would be flexible enough to roll up.