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1999-2000

Tiny Machines Do the Work of Giants

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WPI Professor Pioneers Research in the Miniature World of Nanotechnology

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Contact: Arlie Corday, WPI Media & Community Relations


Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ryszard J. Pryputniewicz (better known as Dr. P.), works in close collaboration with Professor Gordon C. Brown in the Nanoindenter Lab, part of WPI's Center for Holographic Studies and Laser micro-mechaTronics (CHSLT), where researchers are studying machines so small they can only be seen through a powerful microscope.
WORCESTER, Mass. - Imagine a machine so small it can travel through your bloodstream to fix a clogged artery. Imagine one so smart that, when its job is complete, it shuts itself off and is eliminated from the body like so much waste. Now, imagine that same technology at work in hundreds of applications from automobile airbags to computer security. For improving life in the coming century, the word to remember is nanotechnology.

Nano means something very, very small. How appropriate, then, that a small New England technological university, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, has big ideas for this stuff. Under the direction of Professor of Mechanical Engineering Ryszard J. Pryputniewicz (better known as Dr. P.), and in close collaboration with Professors Cosme Furlong and Gordon C. Brown, faculty and students in WPI's Center for Holographic Studies and Laser micro-mechaTronics (CHSLT) are studying machines so small they can only be seen through a powerful microscope.

"What we are primarily specializing in is test measurement and optimization," said Dr. P. "We seem to be the only people in the country, and the world, who can work at this level."

MIT and University of California are working in the field but using different approaches. "They have parts of what we have, and do an outstanding job, but we work with data in the full field of view," said Dr. P. Unlike other research efforts, WPI laboratories measure speed, deformation and a variety of characteristics of nano machines in real time.

Nano machines are made up of gears dwarfed by a dust mite. While infinitesimal, these machines boast massive uses, limited only by scientists' imaginations. In computer security, for example, a nano machine can be used instead of a password for accessing personal information.

"This is something no one else can use to break into your computer," said Dr. P. "No one can run through a combination of permutations, as they could with a password."

Nano machines find applications in transportation, from sensitive automotive air bags to guidance systems for airplanes. Among their advantages is the economy of producing such small machines, which are made of silicon, the same material as a computer chip.

"They are made on wafers (about the size of a vinyl long-playing record) and many, many of them can be made at the same time," said Dr. P. "Eventually you will have an entire laboratory on a chip. It will be able to measure position, velocity, acceleration, elevation, orientation, chemistry, whether something is environmentally safe or not - and you will be able to fine tune and control these processes. That's the goal."

Nanotechnology threatens to make fantasy and science fiction harder to write. In the movie "Twister," scientists dropped sensors into the tornado to pick up information and ultimately defeat the raging storm. "That's one version of this technology," said Dr. P.

A similar preview was the 1966 movie "Fantastic Voyage," based on the Isaac Asimov novel in which a submarine is shrunk to microscopic size and injected into the body of a dying man to destroy a blood clot and save his life. Nano machines will be able to do something similar in the human body, finding problems and fixing them.

Is the half-human, half-machine Borg drone, as envisioned in the science fiction of "Star Trek," a possibility? Can there be a real-life "Six Million Dollar Man"?

"That's not unrealistic," said Professor P. "There are already microelectronic and electromechanical components that use bionic technology to make joints, forearms and other parts of a body. (Entertainer) Stevie Wonder made news recently because he will have an eye operation using new miniaturized sensors. When done, he will have electronic vision tied to his nervous system. That is thanks to this miniaturization technology."

WPI works closely with industry and national laboratories in developing these tiny machines, particularly with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. Sandia, a science-based engineering laboratory funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and managed by Lockheed Martin, provides micromachining technology for individuals and organizations.

So, behind the hermetically closed doors of several laboratories at WPI, Dr. P. directs the work of making big problems shrink to a much more manageable size.

For more information on nanotechnology, see the WPI Web site at https://www.wpi.edu/~chslt or the Sandia Web site http://www.mdl.sandia.gov/micromachine or contact WPI at 508-831-6085.