Nano Science and Technology Institute

MIT Scientists One Step Closer to Creating ‘Engine on a Chip’

Dr. Stuart Jacobson, Deputy Director of the MIT Microengine Project, Talks to NWN About the Importance of Interdisciplinary Research and Collaboration.

The MIT Microengine Project team has been working for several years towards creating a miniature gas-turbine engine, and they are moving closer to creating a prototype of the ‘engine on a chip.’ An early potential application would be to provide lightweight power to soldiers in the field, replacing batteries. A consumer electronics application could include supplying power to laptops. According to Dr. Stuart Jacobson, Deputy Director of the MIT Microengine Project, the team expects to demonstrate a self-sustaining engine by the spring of 2007.

Turbochargers for the micro gas-turbine engine
 
Turbochargers for the micro gas-turbine engine. Photo courtesy/MIT

Dr. Jacobson leads a team of 20 researchers for this project, and they are drawn from several disciplines, including MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the MIT Gas Turbine Laboratory, the Laboratory for Electromagnetic, and Electronic Systems Microsystems Technology Laboratories. “Working with researchers from other departments is what makes the project fun—intellectually, it has been a great experience to work with others,” notes Dr. Jacobson. “When I was a graduate student, I remember working alone on research projects most of the time. Today, many students have the opportunity to see and work with students from different disciplines.”

While Dr. Jacobson notes that the MIT Microengine Project is a MEMS project, nanotechnology does play an important role in their project. “We want to know, ‘What happens when you shrink down to this size? Do good things happen?’”

When it comes to interdisciplinary projects, Dr. Jacobson offers the readers of NWN some advice:

  • When working with complex systems that integrate components from various fields, there needs to be a collaborative effort from the start.
  • Both a “top-down” and “bottom-up” approach is needed to understand where you are going to be and to make the right progress.
  • In the first years of the project, simplify down to the sub-system component level. Starting with too complex of a design will result in low fabrication yield, limiting advancement. At the same time, it is absolutely critical to be concerned with integration from the start, since the sub-system interactions can dictate overall system performance. Balancing these conflicting concepts is the key to ultimate success.
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