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Understanding the various aspects of energy, and its use, is the theme of this year's FIRST LEGO LEAGUE Challenge.

October 14th, 2007

MEMS, Nanotechnology and the "Power Puzzle"

Given the intense focus this past year on "green tech" and "clean tech," as well as the increased momentum to reduce energy consumption, or at least to use it in a smarter and/or more responsible way, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the theme of this year's FIRST LEGO League Challenge is: Power Puzzle.

I've mentioned FIRST LEGO league in pervious episodes, but it's basically an international program for middle school students that combines robotics (which are created using the LEGO Mindstorms kits) and a sports-like competition to solve real-world engineering challenges by applying science, math and technology.

Each of this year's 15 "missions" focus on how energy is made, how it's stored, how we use it, how much we consume and the disposal of associated waste; and activities range from mining coal to planting trees. The purpose is to understand the different elements of energy use within a community, and how changes (whether they're environmental, financial or social) can have either a positive or negative impact.

While I can provide examples of how MEMS and nanotechnology are playing either a direct or indirect role of some kind in all 15 mission areas, I'm just going to touch on a few here:

One is coal mining. Back in the day, and actually up until the 1980's, birds were used by miners to monitor whether the air was breathable or not. So, the concept of a "canary in a coal mine" is not myth, it was real. Today, extremely sensitive sensors that can detect harmful gases like those found in coal mines are being developed. While these "electronic noses" are indeed moving into the market, they're still pretty primitive when compare to the more sophisticated detection capabilities of a tiny bird.

Oil drilling is where MEMS are playing a really unique role: from the use of geophones, which are used to create an image of the area just below the earth's surface to detect where pockets of oil are, to using accelerometers to keep oil platforms, like those located in the ocean, level during drilling. Wireless MEMS devices may soon play a role during drilling to transmit data about conditions within the oil well itself, which could improve the efficiency of the drilling process.

As for solar panels, the use of nanomaterials in conjunction with next-generation photovoltaics is hot! The primary advantage of using nanoscale materials is increased surface area (compared to the same amount of material with a larger particle size). So, in the case of solar cells, the use of nanomaterials allows them to work more efficiently, and you need to use less material, meaning these solar cells can be both smaller and cost a lot less than those available today. This is why there are so many companies involved in the development of next-generation solar cells, and why investors are so interested in what they're doing, because the market impact of these new products is projected to be huge.

I'm especially intrigued about the use of both MEMS and nanotechnology in conjunction with hydrogen power. In the case of the Power Puzzle, the focus is on hydrogen-powered cars. It may seem like something out of the future, but did you know that such cars already exist? And that MEMS sensors are being used throughout such cars to detect whether any hydrogen is leaking, long before it becomes a safety issue? This is real.

And there's so much more. Both MEMS and nanotechnology are in use during the production of ethanol, to help improve filtration and liquid flow. And these technologies are not only improving the efficiency of the electricity grid, basically the power lines you see that transmit electricity all across the country, but protecting them from fire and theft and other damage.

Beyond the Power Puzzle challenge, on a more personal level, nanomaterials and tiny MEMS cooling chips are already found in next-generation light bulbs that are available today. Think about that next time you turn on the lights.

This article is a transcript of the Bourne Report Podcast #65.

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2007 Bourne Research LLC. All rights reserved.

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