CORVALLIS - Researchers from the College of Engineering at Oregon State University today briefed Sen. Ron Wyden on significant new advances with a technology to create personalized "cooling systems" for use by soldiers, rescue workers or firefighters working in hot or hazardous conditions.

The scientists say that a working prototype should be complete within two years.

The senator was on the Corvallis campus today to tour laboratories and review progress on the project, for which he obtained a $1.2 million congressional appropriation for FY2004. Wyden was also the chief sponsor of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act recently passed by Congress and signed into law. This act authorizes $3.7 billion for nanotechnology research and education, beginning in 2005.

During his visit, Wyden and a group of university researchers and Oregon business leaders discussed how the state should be ideally suited to participate in this new program, which will include several major research centers around the nation. An important advantage for the state in securing one of these centers for Oregon, officials say, is the existing Multiscale Materials and Devices Research Center, a collaboration of OSU, Pacific Northwest National Lab, the University of Oregon and Portland State University. It emphasizes multidisciplinary research, education and economic stimulation.

"I'm working with Oregon universities and Oregon industry to establish our state as a research and economic leader in nanotechnology," Wyden said. "This initiative has enormous potential for Oregon's economy and for creating good jobs at research universities and in the private sector."

Wyden said these emerging technologies and the combined forces of the state's major research universities and the private sector have the potential to create jobs, develop talent and spin off new companies.

"Research universities and their private-sector partners can be the sparkplugs of economic activity for Oregon," Wyden said. "With adequate federal research funding, especially in emerging fields such as micro- and nanotechnology, we can help build a strong economy for Oregon for the 21st century."

The new signature research center, Oregon's first, will initially be headquartered in donated space on Hewlett-Packard's Corvallis campus, but will also have facilities located at OSU, UO and PSU.

At OSU, Wyden also discussed the $1.2 million in continued federal support for the current research on portable cooling systems, which he said may ultimately play a large role in both national defense and other civilian applications, such as use by firefighters or miniaturized heat pumps for home heating and cooling.

This three year, $5.2 million project is a combined effort of OSU and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, with primary support from the U.S. Department of Defense. The project uses components with extremely small microchannels - about the thickness of a human hair - to create devices that achieve very high rates of heat and mass transfer.

A wealth of new military and consumer products, devices, and businesses may evolve from the research, with implications for everything from desert combat to automotive cooling. But the initial goal is a very small, portable cooling unit that could be carried by a soldier or other military personnel and pump coolant through a specially-designed suit, preventing the heat exhaustion and heat stroke that can cause serious problems for fighting forces in hot weather conditions.

"In the past year we've succeeded in reducing by 10 times the size of components for this technology," said Kevin Drost, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute, the university's research and educational collaboration with PNNL. "In the next year we plan to focus our efforts on two technologies for the creation of a heat pump that we believe show the greatest promise," Drost said. "One of them is based on new advances for which we've already applied for a patent. We have little doubt this technology is going to work. It's extremely promising."

The heat pumps being used in these systems are "heat actuated," Drost said, meaning that they use fuel-based heat as a source of energy to run the devices and ultimately provide cooling. Besides the individual cooling suits, the U.S. Army is also quite interested in a larger system that could both produce power and provide cooling for other purposes.

The new systems for cooling military personnel will need to be lightweight and strong, experts say. Existing approaches are far too heavy and cumbersome.

"With our new approach, we're going to be able to take a device that's now the size of a coffee can and make it the size of a quarter," Drost said.

The finished product might weigh only a few pounds but have the capability of cooling a person for eight hours before refueling, researchers say. And it could also be scaled up for use in larger systems that might cool tents, tanks or other combat vehicles, possibly using waste heat from the vehicles.

A longer-term application in the consumer world could be the use of miniature heat pumps installed in individual rooms of a home, eliminating the need for expensive and energy-losing ductwork, and helping homeowners customize their heating and cooling at lower costs. 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 is a national leader in microchemical and thermal systems, and together with PNNL, UO and PSU, is working to make the Pacific Northwest a leader in microtechnology and nanomaterials applications.

Aside from fundamental advances in research, it is expected this work will trigger new industries, jobs and educational programs, officials say. All of the products which may emerge from this research should lend themselves to scales of economy and mass production.