Power on a Chip

This is one of the most interesting and exciting technologies that I’ve read about in a while.

Gas turbines powered much of 20th-century technology, from commercial and military aircraft to the large gas-fired plants that helped supply U.S. electricity. But these days it isnít the hulking machines in the labís museum that capture Epsteinís enthusiasm. Instead itís a jet engine shrunk to about the size of a coat button that sits on the corner of his desk. Itís a Lilliputian version of the multiton jet engines that changed air travel, and, he believes, it could be key to powering 21st-century technology.

Though the turbineís blades span an area smaller than a dime, they spin at more than a million revolutions per minute and are designed to produce enough electricity to power handheld electronics. In the foreseeable future, Epstein expects, his tiny turbines will serve as a battery replacement, first for soldiers and then for consumers. But he has an even more ambitious vision: that small clusters of the engines could serve as home generating plants, freeing consumers from the power grid, with its occasional black- and brownouts. The technology could be especially useful in poor countries and remote areas that lack extensive and reliable grids for distributing electricity. A comparison to how the continuous shrinkage of the integrated circuit drove the microelectronic revolution is tempting. ďJust as PCs pushed the computing infrastructure out to users, microengines could push the energy infrastructure of society out to users,Ē says Epstein.

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