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Where industry experiments

The clean room at the Competence Center Nanosystem Technology not only provides high-tech facilities for nano research in Kiel. It also enables companies to test new materials - for example for micro-speakers.

man presents components for innovative speaker chips on silicon wafers
© Julia Siekmann, Uni Kiel

In headphones, smartphones or tablets, tiny speaker chips ensure the right sound. The Fraunhofer Institute for Silicon Technology (ISIT) in Itzehoe is working on a new generation of these micro­electron­ics, together with materials scientist Simon Fichtner. »The goal is energy-efficient and cost-effective speakers with better sound quality and a longer battery life,« explained the doctoral researcher at the Institute for Materials Science at Kiel University.

To drive the speakers, they are using so-called piezoelectric materials for the first time, which they develop in the clean room of the Competence Center Nanosystem Technology at the Faculty of Engineering. These materials expand due to electrical signals, causing the underlying sound-producing membrane to move. As such, they work just like a small motor. This kind of chip speaker could replace conventional electro-dynamic micro-speakers, and in the long-term also be used in medical hearing aids.

A computer chip

The Fraunhofer ISIT and the Competence Center Nanosystem Technology are jointly developing innovative micro-speaker chips.

The ISIT has its own clean room for manufacturing components like this, for microsystems technology. However, just as in industry, which processes may be carried out in these special laboratories with almost dust-free air are strictly defined. In contrast, clean rooms at universities can be used more flexibly. For Bernhard Wagner, the deputy head of the ISIT, this is one of the main advantages of cooperating with the Competence Center in Kiel.

»At the university, we can develop completely new materials without the strict regimentation of the production-orientated ISIT clean room. Here we can really experiment,« said Wagner, who is also Professor for Materials and Processes for Nanosystem Technologies at Kiel University. This is far cheaper than maintaining their own clean room, especially for smaller companies.

»Piezoelectric sensors and drive units on a microchip basis have a high market potential,« according to Professor Eckhard Quandt, head of the Competence Center. Manufacturing these special layers is one of the high-tech facility's strengths. It is funded by the European Union, as well as by the Federal Government and the State of Schleswig-Holstein. This also particularly benefits young scientists, as highly-qualified specialists are trained here for science and industry - there have even been spin-offs in the areas of thin-film technology and functional materials already. »This type of support also strengthens Schleswig-Holstein as a location for research and industry,« said Quandt.

For Fichtner, putting fundamental research into practice through the Competence Center is what makes his doctoral project so exciting: »It is really fascinating to contribute to new technical standards.« It shouldn't be long before the micro-speakers come onto the market. »The close integration of fundamental research at the university, development at the ISIT, and production with partner companies accelerates the product development,« emphasised Wagner. »This is decisive for the market.« He estimates that the speakers could already be commercially available in two to three years.

Author: Julia Siekmann


Competence Center Nanosystem Technology

Innovative solar technology, sensitive magnetic field sensors, medical implants and super-elastic metals are just some of the functional nanostructures which have already been developed in the 300 square meter clean room. The clean room is the core of the Competence Center. State-of-the-art equipment is available for thin-film coating, etching and lithography - and not only for university research. Companies can also use it to test new functional materials. The specialist staff provide advice and assistance to users, or perform work commissioned by companies. The Center itself operates as a non-profit university institution. Since 2016, it has received funding of approximately €3 million from the European Regional Development Fund. (jus)