Europe continues to live up to its tradition of excellence in academic and collaborative research even if there continue to be concerns about the continent's inability to turn academic breakthroughs into global commercial success.
The continent has numerous world class universities but has also specialized in research institutes that sit between the universities and the commercial world. In the area of electronics and information technology, the Fraunhofer network of institutes in Germany are paralleled by IMEC in Leuven, Belgium, by CEA-Leti in Grenoble, France, the Holst Center in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, the Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Ireland, and many others.
The U.K. is conspicuous in that if does not have such a government-supported research institute in the area of electronics or semiconductors although it does host R&D sites for numerous international companies including: Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Samsung and Sharp.
Putting these institutes together with academic and commercial partners and European Union funding of collaborative research makes fertile ground for plenty of research topics with exciting prospects.
Micro-actuator in the ear
For a significant number of people with hearing impairment, behind-the-ear aids do not provide much help because the auditory nervous system has lost resolution. One development that could help the hearing of many is a piezoelectric electro-acoustic transducer being developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart, Germany.
The system comes in three parts; an external microphone and battery, wireless transmission of the signal and an actuator that responds to the electronic signal that is placed directly at the connection between the middle and inner ear known as the "round window." The actuator is a laminated composite made from piezoceramics and silicon and formed like the sectors of a pie. When a voltage is applied the elements bend upwards and generate a mechanical vibration that moves the round window and the inner ear, stimulating the auditory nerve.
The technique holds much promise because it should be highly effective at lower cost than inner ear implants for many patients. To implant the system surgeons only have to make a small incision at the side of the eardrum in a procedure that can be done in outpatient surgery.
A first working prototype is being tested in the laboratory. Optimized components should be ready by June 2013 with testing of the overall system is planned for 2014.
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A square prototype in-ear electro-acoustic transducer with pie-shaped actuator.
Future designs of transducer will be round to ease surgical implantation.