Magazine article USA TODAY

Promising Innovations from Warfare to Mars

Magazine article USA TODAY

Promising Innovations from Warfare to Mars

Article excerpt

Some day soon, members of the American armed forces who have to fight in a sweltering desert climate may wear suits fitted with tiny, lightweight heat pumps to keep them cool. In the future, microreactors the size of a cigarette lighter might run a laptop computer for weeks, instead of using batteries that die in hours. Miniscule medical devices would manufacture chemicals such as insulin right inside the human body. Moreover, humans may travel to Mars.

If any of these things become possible, it will be because of the innovations being created with microtechnology. In the past 20 years, advances in microelectronics helped usher in the Information Age, computers, and the Internet. In coming decades, advances in this field may affect everything from automobiles to medicine, home heating, pollution control, and national defense.

"In the past, anything 'micro' tended to come out of the fields of electrical engineering or computer science, and was made out of silicon or computer chips," explains Kevin Drost, a professor of mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, Corvallis. "But there's so much more to microtechnology than that, and the breakthrough products of the future may evolve from mechanical and chemical engineering."

Researchers at Oregon State and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash., believe the recently formed Microproducts Breakthrough Institute could become an international leader in developing scientific advances in microtechnology, create spinoff companies and jobs, and make the Pacific Northwest a national center of some of the most exciting new technologies in the world. The current initiative, Drost notes, began about a decade ago, when it became apparent to researchers that very high rates of heat and mass transfer could be achieved if processes functioned at the extraordinarily small sizes of 10-100 microns--around the thickness of a human hair.

A heat exchanger working at these sizes, for instance, has about five times the efficiency of one that uses larger components. Such small sizes also lend themselves to chemical and biological systems, in which temperature, pressure, or nutrients can be controlled precisely. The small sizes and precision depend not so much on exotic new materials, but on innovative fabrication techniques with some tried-and-true materials such as copper, aluminum, and stainless steel--along with a few more-modern polymers, plastics, and ceramics. …

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