A MEMS test unit sits under the black box that contains its atmosphere. The gold plates beside it are wiring sites. Next to the device, for size comparisons, are grains of table salt.

A MEMS test unit sits under the black box that contains its atmosphere. The gold plates beside it are wiring sites. Next to the device, for size comparisons, are grains of table salt.


Sandia National Laboratories researcher Steve Thornberg arranges picopuffs of gases from crushed MEMS devices to be sampled by his group's analytic device.

Sandia National Laboratories researcher Steve Thornberg arranges picopuffs of gases from crushed MEMS devices to be sampled by his group's analytic device.


Scientists have devised the world's most advanced gas-sampling procedure — allowing repeated measurements using only picoliters of gas — at Sandia National Laboratories. The method involves a small commercial valve that works like a trash compactor. The valve crushes a tiny object (usually a MEMS device) until it releases its gases — currently, about 30 nanoliters — into a custom-built intake manifold.

The point of the test is to check whether the atmosphere inside the MEMS chip is pure. "I know of no one, anywhere else, who can do this kind of testing," says Sandia innovator Steve Thornberg.

Because the test mechanism needs only picoliters of gas, the instrument can recheck its own results — using bursts of gas delivered in a series of puffs—dozens of times from the same crushed device in a 20-min span. The method provides statistically significant atmospheric measurements at any given moment in a component's life cycle.

(Current industry tests can at best make only one reading from the release of nanoliters of gas. And a single, statisticallyunverified result may contain significant error.)