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Honey, I shrunk the sensor

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July 21, 1995 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. — Thousands of sensors -- some cooled electrically and others cooled with liquid nitrogen -- are used worldwide to monitor everything from chemical pollutants at cleanup sites to nuclear activity in countries unwilling to cooperate with international regulatory agreements.

Now, two Tri-Cities organizations are developing a miniaturized cooling component that, if successful, will reduce drastically the size and power requirements of these sensors as well as extend their lives from days to months and even years.

Stirling Technology Company and the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest Laboratory, both of Richland, have received a $100,000 grant and may receive up to $500,000 more later to create a miniaturized sensor cooling device. The grant was made by DOE's Small Business Technology Transfer pilot program, and the Stirling-PNL contract was one of 18 awarded nationwide by DOE from 177 program proposals.

The cooling device will replace liquid nitrogen and large electrically driven cooling systems in sensors currently used for environmental characterization and cleanup, and often found in telecommunications and computer components, medical diagnostic equipment and advanced imaging systems. The device also may be used on nuclear material detection systems -- which are used to monitor nuclear activity -- and to enforce international non-proliferation agreements such as the proposed Chemical Weapons Test Ban Treaty.

These sensors monitor air, soil and liquids and can detect small

"Currently, the electrically powered coolers for these sensors are about 20-inch cubes and are very heavy, while those that are cooled by liquid nitrogen must have their coolant replenished every few days," says Dr. Ronald L. Brodzinski of PNL. "We believe we can create a much smaller, more efficient cooling system that will allow the entire sensor to fit inside of a lightweight metal pipe about 10 inches long and an inch-and-a-quarter in diameter."

"Such a system will allow sensor cooling to be carried out with much less power and at lower temperatures than existing systems," says Stirling's Jeff Lubeck. "Also, they will function longer and with reduced maintenance."

According to Lubeck, Stirling and PNL will use the nine-month first phase of the project to conduct a feasibility study to examine the scientific and technical merit of promising ideas related to the development of a miniaturized refrigeration system. During this phase, Stirling also will fabricate and test critical components of the refrigeration system.

"If the concepts look promising, DOE may fund a second phase to build, test, calibrate and demonstrate the system," says Brodzinski. "A third and final phase will be funded by Stirling and will focus on pursuing commercial applications," adds Lubeck.

"The application of this technology base to the miniaturized cooler effort allows the program to move rapidly through the design phase and into hardware development, thereby significantly reducing the time to market," adds Barry Penswick, Stirling's principal investigator on the project.

DOE's Small Business Technology Transfer pilot program was created in 1993 to increase private sector commercialization of technology. The program provides small businesses with promising solutions to energy-related scientific or engineering problems an opportunity to work with DOE-supported research institutions.

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