DARPA Develops Tiny Helpers To Spot Bioterror Attacks

New class of powerful, small vacuum pumps could be used in national security applications for electronics and sensors that require a vacuum.
10 Breakthrough DARPA Technologies
10 Breakthrough DARPA Technologies
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The government might soon have at its disposal highly sensitive gas analyzers that can detect chemical or biological attacks, atomic clocks the size of chips, and micro-vacuum tubes. A group of researchers funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently developed a new class of powerful, tiny vacuum pumps that could be used in national security applications for electronics and sensors that require a vacuum.

Researchers at the University of Michigan, Honeywell International, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were able to demonstrate how ultra-high-performance vacuum micropumps work, as part of DARPA's Chip-Scale Vacuum Micro Pumps (CSVMP) program. The purpose of the program -- launched in 2008 -- was to develop a system that's less than 0.5 cubic centimeters in size, excluding power source, plumbing and control circuitry.

University of Michigan researchers created three different pumps, ranging from lowest to highest pressure. The team at MIT developed three types of microscale pumps. One such pump has curved surfaces that displace large volumes of gas. Another pump, developed by Honeywell International, is a turbomolecular pump that operates in the mid-vacuum and high-vacuum range. The pump design is similar to a turbine, but in reverse, so its blades are angled and push gas outward as they spin.

[ How much do you know about the data analysis tools used in the NSA's Prism program? Read Defending NSA Prism's Big Data Tools. ]

The new pumps are about 300 times smaller than commercially available systems, which are about the size of a deck of cards. In comparison, the microscale pumps are about the size of a penny. They also consume 10 times less power. "There have never been ionic or mechanical gas pumps at the microscale before," DARPA program manager Andrei Shkel said in a written statement. The breakthrough would allow vacuum pumps to be used in the smallest, most sensitive electronics and sensors.

Some potential security applications could include gas analyzers that detect chemical and biological disease-producing agents. "These microscale gas pumps may ultimately be required for laser-cooled atomic clocks, accelerometers and gyroscopes," said Shkel. "Laser cooling systems require vacuums, but are often significantly smaller than the pumps themselves. It is possible that these pumps will help enable smaller, more accurate atomic clocks or vacuum electronics."

DARPA has two other programs that focus on such applications. Integrated Micro Primary Atomic Clock Technology (IMPACT) was formed to produce miniature atomic clocks that use less power but still maintain accuracy. High Frequency Integrated Vacuum Electronics (HiFIVE) aims to develop a vacuum electronic high-power amplifier circuit for use in high-bandwidth, high-power transmitters.