Nanotech to Replace Cumbersome Military Batteries
The Washington Times
Teeny, tiny tech
By Drew Wilson
SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Published February 10, 2005
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 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
"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
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.
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
"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
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.
ONAMI Executive Director and Industry Outreach
Oregon State University http://oregonstate.edu/research/techTransfer.html
Portland State University contact Bill Feyerherm at 503-725-8211
University of Oregon http://techtran.uoregon.edu 541.346.3176
Becoming an ONAMI-affiliated researcher:
Kevin Drost at OSU drost@ engr.orst.edu
204 Rogers Hall Oregon State University.
Corvallis, OR 97331
Don McClave at PSU mcclaved@ pdx.edu
Dave Johnson at UO davej@ darkwing.uoregon.edu
Dr. David C. Johnson:
Pacific Northwest National Lab
Professor Jim Hutchison
Richard E. Billo
Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering
Oregon State University
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Corvallis, OR 97331-2702
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