Teeny, tiny tech

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Developments are under way that could wipe batteries off the face of the Earth. Researchers at the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), a consortium of Oregon educational institutions, say they have made significant breakthroughs in a power source that essentially turns 20 pounds of batteries into 8 ounces of fuel the size of a cigarette lighter.

The immediate aim is to use nanotechnology — science on the tiniest scale — to replace cumbersome military batteries and eventually power everything “from cell phones up to systems that run a tank,” said Kevin Drost, ONAMI’s co-director of research.

A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. By comparison, a human DNA molecule is 2.5 nanometers wide and a cold virus is about 20 nanometers. Scientists have found that matter this small behaves differently than larger particles, meaning perhaps monumental changes ahead.

So far, spill-resistant jeans and stronger tennis rackets have been trotted out as nanotech wonders. Now defense-related projects are beginning to bear fruit.

ONAMI’s pocket-power source is good news for soldiers who carry equipment such as night-vision technology, communications and a Global Positioning System unit and burn through batteries daily. Batteries are not only heavy, but they present a supply-chain challenge because soldiers need frequent shipments for replenishment in remote locations.

ONAMI researchers say they have bypassed that problem by developing nanotechnology liquid-fuel cells.

Their first working prototype for the fuel cells is in conjunction with a portable air-conditioning system that will keep a soldier cool in hot climates. The unit runs on hydrocarbon fuel and will be the size of a paperback book weighing about 3.5 pounds.

Mr. Drost said the system is not pie in the sky; a usable unit will be ready in three to five years.

Nanotechnology-structured products are attractive to the military because they can shrink equipment while boosting its performance, according to Mihail Roco, the National Science Foundation’s senior adviser on nanotechnology.

“Nanotechnology offers advantages of smallness, speed and complexity that was not possible before,” he said.

Nanotech-based sensors that detect anthrax molecules before they become a threat are already being used in Iraq, Mr. Roco said, though he wouldn’t give details.

“As these products move into production, they become classified.”

ONAMI’s nano-based battery alternative is one result of $24 million in nanotech funding won in 2003 from sources such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. The consortium is part of Oregon’s “Silicon Forest,” a cluster of high-tech research and development institutions that represents the state’s ambition to join leaders California, Massachusetts, Illinois and Texas.

ONAMI has a $21 million annual budget from the Oregon legislature and relies on the work of about 70 researchers. It hopes to win a chunk of the $3.7 billion 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act signed by President Bush in December 2003.

Skip Rung, ONAMI’s executive director, said engineers design and modify tiny fractal structures referred to as “microchannels,” passages the width of a human hair or smaller. Once optimized in the required way, the microchannels greatly accelerate energy and chemical processes.

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