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MIT Researchers Are Developing An 'Engine On A Chip'

A potential early application might be a small engine that a soldier could wear to power equipment like night vision gear. Batteries currently in use by soldiers are relatively heavy and often run out of juice too soon.
Scientists at MIT are close to putting together the pieces of a miniature gas-turbine engine with hopes that it could replace today's battery technology and be used to power laptops and cell phones in the future.

The researchers, who are spread across different disciplines at MIT, hope to get the pieces to work together by spring. Eventually they hope to implant a tiny engine--the size of a quarter--in silicon. Considering the current recall of millions of laptop batteries, the MIT project takes on heightened importance.

"It's very complicated to make a self-sustaining engine," said Stuart Jacobson, principal researcher, in an interview Tuesday. The parts and functions that must work together include a compressor, a spinning turbine, a bearing system, and a combustion chamber.

The researchers turned to etching silicon wafers when they realized traditional welding and riveting procedures wouldn't work. The overall discipline is called microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). The effort brings together researchers from the university's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the MIT Gas Turbine Laboratory, Microsystems Technology Laboratories, and the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems.

The development team has stacked six silicon wafers on top of each other after the wafers have been prepared through a special etching process. The miniaturized parts include turbine blades that spin at 20,000 revolutions a second, according to an MIT press release. Ten watts of power are produced by a tiny generator.

Noting that the project is funded by the Army, Jacobson said a hoped-for early application would be a small engine in a "stand alone box" that a soldier could wear to power equipment like night vision gear. Batteries currently in use by soldiers are relatively heavy and often run out of juice too soon.

Jacobson is hopeful that a field test can take place in two or three years. After that, "an engine on a chip" could power laptops and cell phones. He envisions the technology being used one day to produce small rocket engines and small lasers.

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