|Sand 9 caps its MEMS oscillator chips with a CMOS ASIC to create an integrated two-chip stack.|
PORTLAND, Ore.Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) have for the first time matched the performance of their high-end rivals, temperature compensated quartz crystals (TCXO), allowing them to compete in mainstream markets for 3G/4G handsets, GPS navigators and WiFi, according to startup Sand 9 Inc., which unveiled the new company today at the Precise Time and Time Interval Systems and Applications Meeting in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M.
Sand 9 (Boston) revealed its high-precision MEMS technology after spending the last two years secretly developing the technology with $10.7 million in seed funding from Flybridge Capital Partners, General Catalyst Partners and Khosla Ventures. Sand 9 is lead by co-founder Matt Crowley, vice president of corporate development, and founder Pritiraj Mohanty, chief technology officer and inventor of its MEMS technology.
Mohanty is a physicist at Boston University where he has demonstrated novel timing inventions in the past, such as a nanoscale electro-mechanical system (NEMS) that exhibited quantum-mechanical motion by jumping between two discrete positions without passing through the physical space between them.
Two years ago, Mohanty and Crowley spun-off Sand 9 from Boston University to develop Mohanty's novel MEMS oscillator structures into what has become the worlds' most precise silicon oscillator, which is capable of competing with the high-precision quartz crystal oscillators used by mainstream original equipment manufacturers in 3G/4G cell phones, global positioning systems (GPS), WiFi and other high-precision applications.
"In a nutshell, we have a MEMS oscillator with performance characteristics on par with the temperature compensated crystal oscillators [TCXO] what we call temperature compensated MEMS oscillator, or TCMO," said Crowley.
Other MEMS oscillator makers have been forced to relegate their sales to markets where ultra-high precision is not required, even though they are working today toward products aimed at the TCXO market, which is becoming the high-volume sweet spot for oscillators, as consumers move into 3G/4G handsets which require higher precision clocks.
"This is the major breakthrough that will enable MEMS oscillators to penetrate the core markets for crystal oscillators," said Crowley. "We have several orders of magnitude [over 100-times] less phase noise than our competitor's MEMS oscillators."
Sand 9's chips, which are currently being sampled and will be available for volume deliverly in 2010, cap the MEMS element with a CMOS application specific integrated circuit to create an integrated two-chip stack. Nevertheless, the chips are still thinner and smaller than their competitors, measuring just .5-by-.1.5-by-.8 millimeters. The ultra-small size combined with high precision give Sand 9 a leg up on landing major design wins in the high-volume market for 3G/4G mobile phones, although the company has not yet secured any major contracts.
Sand 9 claims to have 24 patents protecting the various aspects of the MEMS designs that make its devices superior to other MEMS oscillators and rivals to the best crystal oscillators, but at a lower cost and a smaller form factor. The most obvious difference with Sand 9's design is its use of a higher base frequency for its oscillator (124 MHz compared to 5 MHz) and its use of analog temperature compensation techniques. These improvements, plus a novel MEMS resonator structure, enable Sand 9 to achieve ultra-low phase jitter (less than 90 femtoseconds) simultaneously with ultra-high frequency stability over a wide temperature range (plus or minus 2.5 parts per million, PPM, from -40 to +85 degrees Celsius).
Sand 9's first priority is to deliver on its promise with foundry-made parts in high volume next year, but the company already has plans for the future. Next it plans to integrate different frequencies of MEMS oscillators onto the same die, beginning with adding a 32-kHz real-time clock alongside the main system clock, which can be programmed at the factory to be anywhere from 10-to-160 MHz. Eventually the company plans to migrate its unique approach to the nanoscale fabrication to other types of MEMS devices besides oscillators too.