International Frequency Control Symposium: Silicon MEMS is Replacing Quartz
Posted By: Aaron Partridge

I recently served on an expert panel at the 2010 International Frequency Control Symposium. The IFCS is where the world’s leading timing and frequency control scientists meet to discuss the latest advances. Our panel was formed to debate and answer the question, “Will MEMS Replace Conventional Quartz Resonators?”

The panel was convened by John Vig, a past president of IEEE, and included past and present DARPA program managers, a leading expert on telecom filters, top technologists from the two largest quartz manufacturers, and myself representing the MEMS timing industry. The audience included over two hundred timing experts ready to cross examine the panel and dissect every response over an intensive two hour debate.

These panels are serious business.They are where scientific consensus is forged and from where industry and government is moved. Some panels are more important than others, and this one had shaped up to be very important. Scientists in the field described it as “The Famous Panel”. Ultimately, what was being evaluated was the future of a critical technology and a multi-billion dollar industry. Are things normal, or is the ground shifting?  Will the next ten years be like the last forty, or is a radical change coming?

I obviously have a position on this. The question is not “Will MEMS will replace quartz?” Across computers, scanners, printers, cameras, video equipment, networking equipment, and dozens of other applications, MEMS is already replacing quartz. The question is “How fast and extensive with the change be?”

I was ready to point out that the transition had started, but didn’t need to make this point at all. In his introduction John Vig refocused the debate, pointing out that the change was already underway and that the debate would instead center on how the change would unfold.Then surprisingly to me there was zero dissent. Everyone on the panel agreed! MEMS was already replacing quartz and will make further and deeper inroads. Even the two experts from the world’s largest quartz suppliers agreed.

The debate moved forward to define how extensive the change will be. Can MEMS provide the frequency stability? YES, a paper the previous morning from Professor Thomas Kenny of Stanford showed OCXO stability. Can MEMS provide low enough phase noise? YES, a host of MEMS papers at the conference described impressively low phase noise.

]Can MEMS be made inexpensively enough for consumer applications? YES, SiTime has gone toe-to-toe with quartz and won. Can MEMS provide reliability and quality? YES and YES, semiconductor fabs are known to provide better production control and higher quality than quartz fabs, and this control and quality is inherited by Silicon MEMS made in semiconductor fabs.

The question of MEMS replacing quartz was decided and considered obvious.The speed of the change will be fast and the extent deep. “The Famous Panel” and the audience of experts debated and passed their judgment. MEMS Oscillators is replacing quartz oscillators, it is a done deal.


Oct 18, 2022

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