Sixteen years ago a group of material scientists and engineers at General Electric banded together to reinvent the circuit breaker. Now, Menlo Microsystems, the spin-off commercializing that technology, is ready to bring its revolutionary new switches to market, with huge implications for everything from 5G technologies to quantum computing.
Based in Irvine, California, Menlo Micro takes its name from the Menlo Park, New Jersey research lab where Thomas Edison patented the first light switch back in 1893 — and the company’s ties to GE run deep.
Researchers at GE spent more than a decade working internally on Menlo Micro’s core technology, a novel process that applies semiconductor manufacturing techniques to the production of micro electro-mechanical systems, before spinning it out into a new business five years ago.
Using a novel alloy, Menlo Micro is able to reduce the size of the switches it makes to 50 microns by 50 microns, or roughly the width of a human hair. This miniaturization can enable hardware manufacturers to come up with completely new designs for a host of products that used to require much larger components.
“The micro electro-mechanical system that we use to make this… that’s not new,” said Russ Garcia, the company’s chief executive. “The problem was — the first level innovation is how do you take a mechanical switch like the light switch or a relay and scale that down to a wafer.”
Many companies have tried to make MEMs contact switches, spending hundreds of millions of dollars, but Garcia said that the reliability and durability of the switches was always an issue. The material science behind Menlo’s switches solves the problem, he said.