CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new technology that will allow personalized "cooling systems" for members of the armed forces to use in hot-weather or desert fighting conditions is making good progress, researchers say, and already attracting interest for a wide range of other military and civilian uses.
A second year of funding is anticipated soon for this $6 million project at Oregon State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), to be obtained from the U.S. Department of Defense with the special support of Oregon Senators Gordon Smith, Ron Wyden and other members of the state's congressional delegation.
The continued federal support should make it possible within the next year to create a complete functioning system in the laboratory, and pave the way for a working prototype to present to the military, said Kevin Drost, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute (MBI), the university's new Corvallis-based research and educational collaboration with PNNL.
"Our Oregon senators and other leaders have been instrumental in helping OSU and PNNL to fund this innovative research, and create new technology that could have enormous value for both national defense and consumer applications," Drost said. "So far the work is proceeding extremely well, and we're quite optimistic these systems are going to help everyone from soldiers in desert combat to homeowners who want to cut their energy bills."
The military has been one of the early supporters of this research, Drost said, because of the special challenges facing service people in hot weather conditions - a military person in full fighting uniform or the types of airtight protective clothing used to protect against chemical or biological weapons can quickly become overheated and face the risks of heat stroke.
"What the military has always wanted, and what takes on special urgency in light of the recent conflict in Iraq, is a cooling system for combat personnel that is lightweight, effective and durable," Drost said. "We believe we're going to be able to deliver exactly that."
Special shirts have already been developed that contain tubing through which coolants can be circulated to reduce the heat overload on the body, Drost said. But the existing refrigeration units to cool the circulating fluids are far too heavy and cumbersome to be practical for an individual to carry. With this challenge, the OSU and PNNL researchers are developing new applications with the promising science of microtechnology - devices that use extremely small microchannels about the thickness of a human hair to achieve very high rates of heat and mass transfer.
A heat exchanger, which could form the basis for a cooling system, is actually one of the types of products that can most readily be adapted from this technology, Drost said. Such a system built with microtechnology might be one fifth the size of a conventional component.
The new product that's envisioned would use diesel fuel as an energy source to power a small energy plant and heat pump. It would weigh only 3-4 pounds and have the capability of cooling a person for eight hours before refueling. Such technology would be invaluable in protecting military personnel who serve or fight in the sweltering desert sun.
But that may be just the beginning, Drost said. "The military people we've worked with are getting increasingly excited about the potential to use this technology in many other ways," Drost said. "The power of microtechnology could also be used in larger systems. For instance, we could tap into waste heat from vehicles or use fuel cells to quietly cool tents, tanks, or other combat and transport vehicles. More and more military equipment depends on electronic systems that have to be kept at moderate temperatures to function properly, so there may be a whole range of possible applications that go far beyond these cooling units for individuals in combat."
And in the consumer world, Drost said, similar technology may eventually provide miniature heat pumps that could be installed in individual rooms of a home, eliminate the need for expensive and energy-losing ductwork, and help homeowners have customized heating and cooling at lower costs. Applications in automobiles and other consumer products are also clearly possible, he said, such as an automobile air conditioner that can cool the car using waste engine heat. And cooling outfits similar to those used by the military could be adapted to aid firefighters or other emergency response personnel who have to work in hot or hazardous situations.
OSU and PNNL received $2 million last year to develop this technology, and an additional $1 million expected this year will help the two research organizations create a functioning system. OSU is a national leader in microchemical and thermal systems, and together with PNNL is working to make the Pacific Northwest a leader in microtechnology applications.
The heat pump project is one example of a multiscale device where components with radically difference sizes are combined together into complicated systems. Currently OSU, PNNL, the University of Oregon, OGI School of Science and Engineering and Portland State University are collaborating on the Multiscale Materials and Devices (MMD) Signature Research Center, which is focused on establishing Oregon as the international leaders in this area. Legislators and regional businesses have been key supporters of these programs, Drost said.
"We have received strong support from our federal legislators and we currently have a bill being considered by the state legislature to fund the establishment of the MMD," he said.
As an example of support from regional industry, Hewlett Packard has offered to provide a building to house components of the MMD on a temporary basis until a permanent facility is built at OSU.
New research advances, industries, jobs and educational programs are all expected to emerge from this collaboration, officials say. And all of the products being envisioned, in fields ranging from medicine to home heating and national defense, lend themselves to scales of economy and mass production.