Smartphone MEMs adapted to create affordable gravimeters

Researchers from Glasgow University have adapted technology found in smartphones to make a small but powerful gravimeter.

According to the University, affordable, portable gravimeters could have a wide range of applications, including volcano monitoring, environmental surveying, and oil exploration. The research is detailed in a paper titled ‘Measurement of the Earth tides with a MEMS gravimeter’ and published in Nature.

Gravimeters measure the gravitational field of the Earth and the commercial availability of the devices has seen them employed in the oil and gas industry to discover fossil fuel deposits. However, the widespread uptake of gravimeters has been limited due to cost and size.

Dubbed Wee-g, the new device uses the same micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) that are used in smartphones’ internal accelerometers. While the MEMS technology in phones uses relatively stiff and insensitive springs to maintain the orientation of the screen relative to the Earth, Wee-g employs a silicon spring ten times thinner than a human hair. This allows Wee-g’s 12mm-square sensor to detect very small changes in gravity.

The team used their device to measure the Earth tides – when the moon and the sun exert a subtle effect on the Earth’s crust – from the basement of the University’s Kelvin building. The pull of the sun and the moon displace the crust, creating a very slight expansion and contraction of the planet of around 40cm.

In a statement, Dr Giles Hammond of the University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, one of the co-authors of the paper, said: “The Earth tides are a well-established phenomenon, which we’re able to accurately predict using mathematical models.

“One of the factors which separates gravimeters from simple accelerometers is stability, allowing users to monitor variations in gravity over the course of several days-weeks. We used our Wee-g system to monitor the Earth tides under Glasgow over the course of several days, and our results aligned perfectly with the variations in gravity the model had predicted.

“The significance of this is two-fold: firstly, we’ve shown that a MEMS device can maintain its stability over a long period of time, and secondly, that a device which could easily be built using existing mass-production technology can act as a very accurate gravimeter.”

Co-author Richard Middlemiss said: “There are a lot of potential industrial applications for gravimeters, but their cost and bulkiness have made them impractical in many situations. Wee-g opens up the possibility of making gravity measurement a much more realistic proposition for all kinds of industries: gravity surveys for geophysical exploration could be carried out with drones instead of planes; and networks of MEMS gravimeters could be places around volcanoes to monitor the intrusion of magma that occurs before an eruption – acting as an early warning system.”

The detector, built at the University’s James Watt Nanofabrication Centre, is a collaboration between the School of Physics and Astronomy (Institute for Gravitational Research) and the School of Engineering (Electrical & Nanoscale). The work is one of the first research outcomes from QuantIC, the UK’s centre of excellence for research, development and innovation in quantum enhanced imaging, which was established in 2015.

“We’re currently working to make the device smaller and more portable and via QuantIC we’re building industrial partnerships within several sectors to exploit the device commercially,” said Middlemiss.