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Teeny, tiny tech
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.
Optimized microchannels also can convert vegetable oils into diesel fuel. Soon a field of soybeans or agricultural products could be converted to diesel fuel to run a tank, officials said.
Nanotech also could mean big savings. James Murday, chief scientist at the Office of Naval Research, said a nanotech-based structural coating for naval vessels starting to be used could save $100 million per year because of improved friction wear.
“Without question nanotech is very important for the military and most of the nanotech-based products in the defense area haven’t arrived yet,” Mr. Murday said.
Nanotechnology is often viewed as a radical science that will bring monumental changes. Practical results, however, have been mainly new and improved consumer products, suggesting the technology has been hyped.
Mr. Roco, nonetheless, has a sweeping vision of nanotechnology helping industries globally. The NSF has predicted that worldwide nanotechnology-based applications will be worth $1 trillion per year by 2015.
“Nano is also entering, very fast, biology and medicine and we will start to have significant applications such as increasing human performance,” he said.
Creating organ replacements has been the goal of many nanotech researchers. ONAMI is within three years of completing a kidney dialysis machine small enough to carry, and officials believe it can eventually be reduced enough to replace a kidney entirely.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School, scientists have made a tiny, functioning vascular system, which is considered a big step in making whole organs.
Nanotechnology has been seen by some as a potentially dangerous development that could spin out of control.
But Mr. Rung, said the potential danger is equivalent to a chemical spill.
Nanoscale particles generally have increased toxicity because they are highly reactive. To eliminate hazards, Oregon institutions are working on benign versions of nanoparticles that contain cellulose and biodegrade in six months. ONAMI is developing a portable factory where nanoparticles are made in microreactors exactly where they are needed.
“It completely eliminates the dangers of making them in a factory in one place and shipping to the point of use,” Mr. Drost said.
Portable factories also have space applications. Mr. Drost said researchers in Oregon are designing a system to make rocket fuel on Mars so the fuel doesn’t have to be brought. If successful, spacecraft would weigh less, have simpler design, reduced dangers and lower cost.
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