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What Would You Do With a Waterproof MEMS Microphone? Listen to Whales, of Course

Vesper built its waterproof piezoelectric microphones for mobile phones and the IoT, but they turn out to be pretty good for listening to whale songs

2 min read
A whale swims just under the surface of the ocean. Vesper's piezoelectric MEMS microphone can record underwater whale sounds without special housing
Photo: Kate Westaway/Getty Images

I first met Vesper CEO Matt Crowley around this time last year. Crowley said his startup had developed a prototype of a piezoelectric MEMS microphone that, he told me, was going to revolutionize the way mobile devices hear. Eventually, he said, every smart phone would have eight or more of these little microphones on board, they’d hardly use any power most of the time, and they would be the most reliable microphones we’ve ever seen.

Big claims, so I’ve been keeping an eye on Vesper since. Vesper doesn’t have their chips in any commercial mobile phones yet. But they come to mind every time a kid of mine manages to soak a cell phone and we’re both biting our nails hoping the possibly mythical rice trick works, because I know from experience it’s the microphone that’s the first thing to go when phone meets water. And I do I keep hearing more and more about piezoelectric microphone technology.

Vesper started in late 2014, coming out of a University of Michigan project aimed at using piezoelectric MEMS to create better microphones for uses as varied as aerospace and hearing aids. Conventional MEMS microphones have a backplate with an air gap separating it from the diaphragm; anything that gets in that gap—even a speck of dust or drop of water—can block that movement, killing the microphone. With piezoelectric MEMS microphones, the membrane generates electricity directly from the motion of soundwaves; there is no backplate. This is what makes them resistant to dust and water. That’s good news for people (like my kids) who drop their mobile devices in the toilet, run in heavy rainstorms, and go to dusty Burning Man.

Vesper has been collecting awards for its technology, most recently, Vesper chief technology officer Bobby Littrell received the Innovator of the Year Award in the annual Annual Creativity in Electronics competition held in San Jose in December. That same week the company scored US $15 million in venture funding, including an investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund, to help bring its design to market.

But just because Vesper still has a lot to do to make its microphone happen doesn’t mean its engineers haven’t had time to enjoy the technology themselves. During his pitches to phone manufacturers, Crowley typically raves that the microphones will even work underwater. One manufacturer’s representative, Crowley said, asked him why anybody would want to record sound underwater. Crowley flashed on the movie Star Trek IVand its plotline surrounding an attempt to contact whales.  That led to him suggest a whale watch expedition for the next company outing, and to ask Vesper engineer Tung Shen Chew to put the microphone onto some kind of rig (basically a long pole) that would let them get it into the water.  “We got a lot of strange looks from the crew and other passengers, but once we explained what we were doing, they thought it was cool,” Crowley says. You can see a few whales—and hear their underwater sounds as recorded by the piezoelectric MEMS microphone—in the video above.

Next year, Burning Man?

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.