Micro Machines For Real

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How many times have you heard it said that small is beautiful?  There is nothing much smaller than the atom itself, but technology today is beginning to see the advantages of creating machines that are so tiny they could fit comfortably inside a human hair, yet they are enormously powerful, especially in the field of MEMS(microelectricalmechanicalsystems) which combine electrical and mechanical components.

Take the example of the idea which has battery makers like Duracell in a real flap, because it could signal the end of their time in powering machines.  The silicon micro engine, just 1 millimetre wide, is the world’s smallest combustion engine, complete with fuel injection intake and exhaust. It runs on liquid fuel, like butane or propane.

These have 50 times the energy density of conventional alkaline batteries, and a single tank of fuel would enable the micro engine to provide power for ten times longer than any conventional battery can. It was at the University of California, in Berkeley, that they produced this machine, a rotary engine that spins at 40,000rpm.

These tiny engines could soon be powering all manner of portable electronic devices, and since they never wear out, would do away with the need to recycle old batteries.  They are even, at America’s Sandia National laboratories, fashioning silicon microchains 50 millionths of a metre across, to create systems of interlocking gears.

These ‘drives’ will make it possible to vastly increase the power output of micro engines by linking them physically, and the Sandia team have already, in this way, managed to increase the power of a micro engine 3 million times, enabling it to lift an incredible 450 grammes.  Not much, you might think, but this is only the beginning.

It is estimated that 450 companies and 270 University departments around the world are involved in researching the  possibilities of ultra small macinery, spending over $3billion in 2002 alone. US experts predict that this market will be worth at least $1trillion by 2010, so it really is big business, and the scope for new technologies is awesome.

For doctors, the most exciting innovation is the microscopic microscope.  The 1 mm square microscale confocal imaging array has a lens just 300 microns wide.  Smaller than the last full stop dot on this page. It is 500 times smaller than conventional microscopes of this type, and could be used, in keyhole surgery, to actually view the effects of drugs delivered to specific cells within the body.

Real time research like this has never been possible before, and this is viewed as a tremendous leap forward in medical research. Professor Luke P Lee of Berkeley says.

“We’ve shrunk a million dollar machine down to a size that can balance on the tip of a ball-point pen.  You could put this device on the tip of an endoscope, and doctors could see how treated cells behave in real time, in response to drugs.”

At the same time, MIT’s Space Nanotechnology Laboratory have developed a new technique called Scanning Beam Interference Lithography, which is so accurate in its ability to define images that, by 2010, they will have achieved resolutions 300,000 times more efficient than the Hubble space telescope.  Future star gazers will be able to see much more detail from galaxies much further away, and space exploration will be that much nearer.

There is no doubt whatever that the continued advances in this field will benefit all of mankind, in the long run.  Computers that fit comfortably in your shirt pocket, with the power of today’s mainframes and instant access to the world wide web are not many years away now, and microscopic machines that will be injected in the bloodstream, to deliver drugs locally, are also nearly with us.

There are nightmare scenarios, as in the latest Michael Chrichton book ‘Prey’, where a swarm of intelligent nanobots gets loose, but the reality is likely to be much friendlier than that.  When the possibility exists for creating medical micro machines that are capable of instantly detecting the presence of harmful bacteria, or cancer, at an atomic level, then preventative medicine will be much improved, and many ailments will become things of the past.

In a world, and universe that are becoming ever smaller, because technology gives us so much more scope, it makes sense to think small, and use fewer resources for the same effect.  When Eric Drexler, in 1986, wrote the book ‘Engines of Creation’, about the mysterious world of the atom, he could hardly have imagined that we would get so close to conquering it so soon. It really is a small world, but a world of untapped possibilities.  I can hardly wait.       


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