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by Mike Zazaian September 19, 2006 - 4:19pm, 3 Comments

A pair of microengines

Researchers at MIT have developed a gas-turbine engine the size of a quarter that can power devices for ten times as long as lithium-ion batteries.

The microengines, as they’re called, are comprised of six separate silicon wafers. Channels for fuel and exhaust are etched into each wafer, which, when bonded together, perform the same functions as a larger gas turbine engine.

The heart of the microengine are its super-strong turbine blades which spin at 20,000 RPS, or revolutions per second. At such speeds the turbines in the microengines spin 100 times faster than those used in commercial aviation.

From all this 10 Watts of power are produced in a miniature generator inside the chip, or about 1/10 of the energy needed to power a light bulb. But even with such a small output the portability, compactness and efficiency of the microengines suggests that their future applications could be vast. Scaled-up of such microengines could replace lithium batteries used in cell phones, laptops and other electronics that require a rechargable fuel source.

But even with all the advances that have been made on the microengines, the technology is still in a non-working prototype phase. Because the microengines operate on such a small scale, it’s difficult to analyze and repair problems within them. Of the existing prototypes, none have displayed full functionality. Each part of the engine has been shown to work on various chips, but researchers have yet to produce a fully functioning prototype on which all of the parts works as they should. Said Alan Epstein, an MIT Professor of Aero and Astronautics, and head of the project:

So all the parts work…We’re now trying to get them all to work on the same day on the same lab bench. That turns out to be a hard thing to do.

[MIT Press Release]