Micro Fuel Cells
In another major initiative, SSIM researchers are working on long-lasting, powerful micro fuel cells for everything from cell phones and laptops to futuristic sensors that can detect contamination from biological and chemical agents. Instead of changing entire batteries, users would simply switch out tiny fuel canisters in the fuel cells.
The SSIM researchers are resolving many of the previously insurmountable engineering challenges of micro fuel cells. For example, they are introducing microplasma, a small amount of a highly energized gas formation, to break down alcohol, gasoline, methane and other additive fuels to form hydrogen, which ultimately powers the fuel cell. They are also studying laser interaction and acoustic methods for breaking down the fuels. For this so-called "reformer technology," they are developing sensors and associated software to monitor the fuel cell's levels of hydrogen and the byproduct carbon monoxide, which can become dangerous if they rise too high. Their prototype sensors are already sensitive to 1 part per million even when in the presence of hydrocarbons, water and oxygen, and are proportional to the hydrogen concentration - two features that make them ideal for use in fuel cells.
Hydrogen sensors have uses beyond fuel cells. In January 2003, the space shuttle transported an SSIM sensor to space on a Boeing satellite, for evaluation of the effects of space on the sensor materials. To be functional in space, the researchers designed the sensor to withstand temperature extremes, a characteristic that they are also incorporating into sensors for numerous automotive applications where high heat is an issue.
In addition, SSIM researchers are using novel techniques and, in many cases, novel materials that are durable enough to handle the demands placed on the tiny fuel cells, but also suitable for the fine micromachining required. The SSIM researchers have already developed the micromachining technology and constructed the basic components of the hydrogen and carbon monoxide sensors, and are now in the process of building new functional prototypes.