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Recent Patents on Engineering 2009, 3, 194-209

A Review of Recent Patents on Micro-Combustion and Applications

Swarup Y. Jejurkar* and Debi P. Mishra
Combustion Laboratory, Department of Aerospace Engineering Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur 208 016, India
Received: April 8, 2009; Accepted: June 9, 2009; Revised: July 4, 2009

Abstract: Micro-combustion is being investigated for potential application in aerospace propulsion, electricity generation and heating. Simultaneously to studies focusing on scientific aspects of micro-combustion, inventions concerned with micro-combustor configurations and methods of carrying out sustained micro-combustion in them have appeared in the recent past. In order to gauge the current state of art in this important area, and also to provide a concise summary of some significant technological developments to date, patented inventions on micro-combustion and its applications are reviewed in this paper. Key features of the inventions tentatively classified according to the three application areas are described while revealing their significance by carrying out a comparative study of patents and non-patent literature. This study considers performance parameters, scope of envisaged applications and complexity of configuration. Allied areas of micro-machining (MM) and electricity generation have also been discussed. A major objective is to identify factors, which could decide future progress of micro-combustion, and to this end; the review indicates that low achievable overall efficiency is a major bottleneck in application of micro-combustion technology. Consequently, further development of reasonably tested devices will depend upon progress made in the down-stream energy converters. Finally, an outlook on the future developments is also presented.

Keywords: Microcombustion, mesoscale combustion, catalytic microcombustion, microthruster, microcombustor, micro power generation. 1. INTRODUCTION There is a growing trend in aviation, biotechnology, chemical process industry, information technology and medicine towards miniaturization of devices as exemplified in micro air vehicles, substrate characterization, reactorseparators, communication devices and drug delivery systems, respectively. The twin needs to obtain maximum from the available or supplied and cut costs fuel this trend. Miniature devices are preferable in this scenario because, they offer better control, more precise measurements and more flexibility than the conventional ones. However, the newer applications also demand greater sophistication in efficiency, weight and reliability; for example in space propulsion and battery operated devices. The energy needed for operating these devices is obtained by using a number of methods including batteries, fuel cells and most importantly, combustion. Combustion is the most important route to convert chemical energy of various fuels like hydrogen, natural gas, fuel oils, gasoline and alcohols into thermal energy. Subsequently, thermal energy transfer into kinetic or electrical energy occurs via subsidiary routes. Due to obvious restriction on available volume in miniature devices, combustion based energy converters need to operate at necessarily small length scale in these devices. In this respect, combustion is termed as micro-combustion because the characteristic length scale of the confined space is of the order of 100-1000 Em. If it is possible to integrate such a micro-combustor in miniature devices, then its attributes
*Address correspondence to this author at the Combustion Laboratory, Department of Aerospace Engineering Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur 208 016, India Tel: +91-512-2597125, Fax: +91-512-2597626; E-mail:

such as flexibility in terms of distributed and autonomous operation, enhanced overall efficiency, reduction in emissions and improvement in economy and reliability become visible and useful. Accordingly, research and development of microcombustors for various types of applications is an active area in micro-combustion technology and it is reviewed in this paper by carrying out a survey of patented inventions. To begin with, certain fundamental aspects of micro-combustion and possible applications are briefly discussed in the next section. The challenges to combustion in micro devices are spelled out and possible advantages vis--vis conventional combustor are also indicated. Subsequently, patents are described in detail focusing on technological aspects and significance. While the paper is aimed at summarizing key technological developments in this area, it also provides pointers to current research trends and an outlook for future developments. 2. OVERVIEW OF MICRO-COMBUSTION Combustion is primarily a chemical process of oxidation occurring when fuel and oxidizer (like air) react under proper proportions, as well as right temperature and pressure. It is a highly exothermic process and self-accelerating due to evolution of heat and radicals. As such, special arrangements are necessary to start and control combustion in practice. In general, combustion carried out in confined space is affected by internal conditions also. An extreme case of this characteristic is observed in miners safety lamp, which is fitted with wire gauze whose openings are smaller than the quenching diameter to prevent explosion of methane-rich gases. Although, not strictly defined, quenching diameter is generally in the range 600-3000 Em and incidentally, micro 2009 Bentham Science Publishers Ltd.

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combustors are called for service in this size range, or even below. Self-sustaining micro-combustion is difficult to establish because of heat losses through walls, which result in rapid flame quenching. Heat losses are mainly due to a large increase in surface area relative to volume. Additionally, residence time necessary to complete mixing and combustion of reactants may not be easily available in a microcombustor resulting in incomplete combustion and poor operating efficiency. 2.1. Applications of Micro-Combustion Early evaluation studies for micro-combustion were commissioned in the USA by DARPA for using microcombustion in military communication devices. Since then, micro-combustors burning fossil fuels are projected to replace batteries in such devices. This is because the best available Li-ion batteries have a storage capacity (in terms of available chemical energy) of 1.2 MJ/kg against 45 MJ/kg of hydrocarbons. Even a poorly performing micro-combustor can compete with batteries superior in efficiency because of this huge disparity. Consumer electronic products like mobile phones, laptop computers as well as military communication devices can especially benefit from this since charging and downtimes would then be substantially reduced. However, one of the important hurdles in realization of this possibility is the technology needed to convert thermal energy obtained from micro-combustion into useful electrical energy. There are a number of other applications envisaged for micro-combustion as illustrated in Fig. (1). An important application of micro-combustion is in the propulsion of small air vehicles with mass less than 10 kg and thrust requirements in 1-10 mN range. Electric propulsion systems currently compete with micro-combustion in

this area. Thrust augmentation could be possibly achieved by employing arrays (series-parallel arrangement) of microcombustors and thrusters. Use of combustors and thrusters in arrays is called scale-out, a strategy that can allow large amount of accumulated power and thrust from devices individually producing only miniscule amounts. Additionally, better control and improved redundancy are two major advantages of such an arrangement. Use of microcombustors in thrust vectoring is also envisaged. Micro turbo machinery built by replicating a conventional Brayton gas turbine cycle and employing micro-combustion has also been built and tested [1]. How far micro-combustion can be useful in automobile propulsion is not clear as of now. The current approach is towards replicating internal combustion engines [2] at micro scale and it relies heavily on machining and manufacturing methods used for micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) fabrication. In order to harness thermal energy from micro-combustion, it is necessary to provide some means for converting it into electric and/or kinetic energy. Conversion to kinetic energy is achieved by conventional turbines [3] and thrusters [4] miniaturized specially for this purpose, while conversion to electric power is obtained by thermoelectric [5] or thermophotovoltaic [6] effects. Associated conversion elements like heat spreaders and circuitry are also miniaturized to keep overall package size within prescribed limits. In a thermoelectric generator, the heat generated by micro-combustion is directed through heat spreaders out of combustor and resulting thermal gradients are used to set up voltage as per Seebeck-Peltier effect. Waste heat is usually rejected to outer ambient atmosphere via radiator fins. The module may also contain an inverter. A selective emitter or a gray body emitter-band pass filter combination able to emit radiation captures thermal energy in a thermophotovoltaic electric generator. Arrays of photovoltaic cells absorb the emitted

Fig. (1). Applications of micro-combustion.

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radiation, which is converted into electric power through electronic circuits. These two effects are especially attractive to micro-combustion based generators since such converters lack any moving parts and are configurable to fit in a small overall volume. 2.2. Challenges in Micro-Combustion A micro-combustor differs from conventional macrocombustor in a number of aspects and typical characteristics of a micro-combustor and a conventional gas turbine combustor are compared in Table 1 to highlight these distinguishing features.
Table 1. Comparison of Typical Macro and Micro-Combustor Variables
Variables Length Scale Surface Area/Volume Inlet Pressure Inlet Temperature Mass Flow Rate Residence Time Thrust-Weight Ratio Combustion Efficiency Power Densitya

2.3. Catalytic and Homogeneous Micro-Combustion Micro-combustion can be carried out on a catalyst in which case it is predominantly a heterogeneous reaction involving surface reactions. In catalytic combustion, noble metals like platinum (Pt), rhodium (Rh) and palladium (Pd) supported on ceramic supports like alumina, zirconia, etc. are coated on to the micro-combustor wall using special deposition and drying methods. These catalysts overcome activation energy of reactants by forming intermediate active complexes so that reactions can occur at a lower temperature. Reaction rate in catalytic combustion also scales with the specific surface area (available surface area per unit geometric surface area) which is increased enormously by porous supports. A comparison of these routes and additional benefits of catalytic micro-combustion are summarized in Table 2 [3, 7-10].
Table 2. Comparison of Catalytic and Homogeneous MicroCombustion
Parameter Micro-Combustion Route Catalytic Specific surface (m2/m2) Operating temperature Flammability Start-up Fabrication Exemplification Very high (~1500) Low (~773 K) Wider limits Easy Complicated US6193501 B1 [8] Homogeneous Less High (~1473 K) Restricted limits Difficult Easier US6392313 B1 [3]

Macro-Combustor ~0.2 ma small (~4) ~4 MPa ambient ~140 kg/sa ~7 msa 20:1 >99.9% 1960 MW/m3

Micro-Combustor 5.0e-04-1.0e-02 m very large (~200) 0.001-0.4 MPa ambient 0.01e-03-2e-03 kg/s ~1 ms 100:1a ~70-80% 3000 MW/m3

refer to [1] in text.

Some striking contrasts are observed; most notably in length scale, surface area per unit volume (SAV), thrustweight ratio and combustion efficiency. Small size of microcombustors is a limitation imposed by application while comparatively very large SAV on one hand and potentially inadequate residence time on the other are its direct consequences introduced due to scaling effect. Combustion efficiency of micro-combustor is poor in comparison to the conventional combustor because of high SAV and inadequate residence time. On the other hand, obtainable thrustweight ratio is more for a micro-combustor mainly because this ratio scales inversely with characteristic length [1]. Apart from flame quenching induced by heat losses, radical losses to reactive walls (chemical quenching) can also occur in micro-combustion. Radicals are primarily responsible for causing self-acceleration of combustion process and their loss to wall is detrimental in some situations. Power output although apparently low in case of micro-combustor, could always be increased by scaling out, i.e. by employing a number of micro-combustors in arrays. It should be noted that ratio of heat lost to the heat retained (or generated) is an important indicator of microcombustor performance, especially in cases where fuel of low calorific value is used. However, no such data could be found in the surveyed patents.

2.4. Generic Micro-Combustors Micro-combustors can be conveniently differentiated as simple and complex, depending upon their structural features. Shape of a micro-combustor is primarily influenced by available volume and intended application. Geometries have not been standardized to a small number of variants, as is the case in macro-scale combustion although certain design rules have been formulated [1, 11]. Simple geometries have obvious advantages in terms of construction but need special means to achieve flame stabilization. They also suffer from ineffective utilization of liberated heat and cannot always compete with complex geometries for low temperature applications, which are achieved using catalyst coatings. Such coatings need higher specific surface area to be effective, which may be easily available in complex geometries. In spite of this, results of experimental and computational studies [12] indicate that stable microcombustion could be possible in simple configurations. On the other hand, complex geometries are suitable for catalytic combustion and allow maximum utilization of available energy density of the fuel. They also contribute to tighter packing but demand substantially more effort during fabrication. A common attribute of all the micro-combustor assemblies is their package volumes, which are generally of the order of 1-10e-06 m3. While a variety of configurations

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are devised, disc and cylindrical shapes are more common with overall dimensions of the order of 0.01 m. Devices have been patented in both the categories outlined above and considered in the next section. A generalized assembly of such micro-combustor systems can be pictorially represented in Fig. (2), which shows typical elements necessary for building a micro-combustor-cum-generator. Fuel supplied from a captive storage tank mixes with incoming air in a static or passive micro-mixer. An igniter device is operated to start combustion usually by means of an external power source. Depending upon design principle, the combustion chamber could couple with a heat exchanger, which extracts heat liberated from micro-combustion and keeps wall temperature within safe operating limit. The exhaust gases either pass through a turbine or purge from assembly. In electricity generation, the heat losses from walls of combustor feed a thermoelectric or thermophotovoltaic module, while waste heat finally purges through compact heat exchangers in the shape of fins arranged suitably on package walls. A process controller circuit controls entire operation by control on igniter, valves, actuators, sensors, etc., and balances electric loads. Lastly, all the elements mentioned above are miniaturized and configured to fit in available package volume. 2.5. Fabrication of Micro-Combustor Assembly Micro-combustor assemblies described in the next section can be fabricated by a variety of methods ranging from conventional precision machining to the Lithography, Electroplating and Molding (LIGA in German) technology. In fact, many of the nascent ideas about inventions have been possible due to impressive progress made in micro fabrication techniques. A number of factors need to be considered before a fabrication method is chosen; smallest and largest dimension (aspect ratio), precision, type of material, scale-out potential, production cost, etc. and a trade-off exists in selecting a suitable method. Notably, some technologies (e.g. LIGA) can produce only two-dimensional (planar) devices while conventional precision machining can produce three-dimensional devices. It will be noted from the inventions to be described in next section that configurations could have different structures but a common element in them is the use of semi-conductor and ceramic type materials in fabrication. Current understanding indicates that material

of construction (MOC) is not always a critical issue for flame stabilization in a micro-combustor and stainless steel has also been indicated as a possible material of construction in patented devices [9, 13]. It is however easy to adopt silicon-based materials for compatibility with prevailing micro-fabrication methods. A number of inventions included in this paper rely on silicon (Si) or its derivatives, notably silicon carbide (SiC), as materials of construction. Consequently, their fabrication is carried out according to the well-established procedure comprising of lithography, chemical vapor deposition (CVD) or chemical solution deposition (CSD) of material and film, dry or wet cleaning, direct reactive ion etching (DRIE), doping, bonding and planarization. 3. RECENT PATENTS ON MICRO-COMBUSTORS AND APPLICATIONS Literature survey on patents revealed that micro-combustors can be broadly classified based on the type of combustion (homogeneous/heterogeneous); envisaged application propulsion/electricity/heating) and structure (simple/ complex). These categories are not exclusive but serve to highlight the underlying characteristic of a micro-combustor under consideration. A number of patents are reviewed for each class and break-up as per their category is summarized in Table 3 according to which, all three major classes of future applications have been addressed by inventors. Although homogeneous (gas phase) combustion is the mode of choice for many inventions, catalytic combustion is favored for the advantages discussed previously. Majority of inventions are configured into complex shapes as seen in the table partly because they are conceived for catalytic combustion or seek to integrate combustion with other downstream processes for energy conversion, thus necessitating tighter packing. Not shown here but equally important is the choice of fuels in micro-combustors. Thruster applications invariably consider solid propellants, while liquid fuels are preferred in applications where passive actuation through gravity or capillary forces is desirable. Gases are the fuels of choice in other applications. A few inventions are flexible enough to burn a number of fuels. A detailed list of fuels and catalysts recommended or disclosed in individual inventions is compiled in Tables 4, 5 and 6 .

Fig. (2). Elements of a generalized micro-combustor package.

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Table 3. Break-up of Surveyed Inventions According to Important Characteristics

Class Envisaged Applications Propulsion Electricity Heating Mode of Combustion Homogeneous Catalytic Configuration Simple Complex No. of Patents 10 12 8 13 8 4 26

Inventions classified according to envisaged applications are used for convenience of presentation and reference is made to other categories during the course of description. Wherever relevant, patents belonging to a particular class are compared with each other to highlight salient features and discuss the technological importance and scientific contribution made by them. Pertinent non-patent literature is also discussed to make this comparison effective. Additionally, a summary of important details related to inventions is tabulated at proper locations. Their representative nature and the date of disclosure/publication mainly influence the choice of patents. Accordingly, recently patented inventions have priority over the earlier ones as the earlier patents are always cited in respective patent applications in the sections devoted to prior art and description of invention, or the like. 3.1. Propulsion A number of recently patented inventions [3, 4, 8, 14] on micro-combustion are intended for aerospace vehicle propulsion including rocket, satellite and fixed wing microair vehicles. Battery operated electric propulsion is the preferred option in micro-air vehicles as of now and future propulsion systems are likely to involve micro-combustor as

a thermal source. Epstein et al. [3] patented an invention on micro turbo-machinery, which consists of an assembly of a micro-compressor, micro-combustor, micro-turbine, expansion micro-nozzle, etc. together constituting a Brayton cycle heat engine. The engine also contains miniaturized electric motor capable of generating electric power. Thus, power generation along with thrust can be achieved in the claimed invention. This device has been tested experimentally and numerically and is reported elsewhere [1]. In an invention related to space propulsion, Perlo and Innocenti [14] describe a micro-combustor in the form of a shock tube with circumferential grooves of specific surface contours rifled axially. This device is useful for achieving slow or fast deflagration and even deflagration-to-detonation transition (DDT) to generate high velocity gases, which can then be suitably used for imparting thrust, possibly in rocket application. Fabian et al. [15] disclosed an invention in which a miniature gas turbine and compressor are fabricated in one piece on rotor shaft. The micro-combustor and other arrangements are similar to a standard gas turbine combustor. The assembly is useful for meeting propulsion requirements of unmanned air vehicles and autonomous robots. In yet another invention somewhat related to micro-combustion as a thermal source, Innocenti et al. [16] have described a system architecture devised for harnessing the energy released by micro-combustor (or any other thermal source) for electric propulsion in motor vehicles. Micro-thrusters have also been considered by inventers and Youngner [4] has patented an invention according to which solid propellant combustion is carried out in small cavities and exhaust gases are passed through thruster elements attached downstream of these cavities. As shown in Fig. (3), a propulsion cell of the microthruster consists of at least two cavities separated from each other by a diaphragm. Upper cavity contains a propellant while lower cavity contains an igniter. Heat generated by the igniter ruptures the diaphragm, burning the propellant. The individual cavity-thruster elements are arrayed together. The invention is intended for attitude control of micro-satellite operating in a satellite constellation. As per the disclosed

Fig. (3). A propulsion cell for micro-thruster [4].

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information, thruster action can also be precisely controlled to maintain a certain separation distance among the satellites. Silicon-based semi-conductor manufacturing techniques are prescribed for the fabrication of individual elements. A notable feature of the invention is its ability to ignite each propellant cavity individually using miniscule amount (~1 <g) of lead styphnate heated to an auto-ignition temperature of around 543 K. In a patent describing microthruster based actuator, Baricos et al. [10] used a pyrotechnic material suitably enclosed using plates and in thermal contact with a resistive heater for initiation of combustion, as depicted in Fig. (4). A matrix of such micro thrusters is used which are thermally isolated from each other for better control. On rapid combustion, the thrusters break a plate and an integrated circuit can control actuator for applications including controlled inflation, mechanical displacement of tools and fluid control devices like valve and piston. The mechanism should be such that pyrotechnic material can be fired in a controlled manner and required parameter (speed, pressure, temperature, flow rate, etc.) is varied in a pre-determined manner. In a related invention, Ahn et al. [7] disclosed a siliconbased pressure generator useful to pump liquids in micro channels. As shown in Fig. (5), the pressure is generated in this device by controlled burning of azo bis-isobutyronitrile (AIBN) solid propellant in a cavity to obtain gas, which can be used to pressurize liquid, e.g. water. The present invention could be a substitute or replacement for micro-pump based micro-fluidic networks. The AIBN propellant also contains a predetermined quantity of nitrogen (N2), released upon its dissociation, which is used to pump liquid. In another variation, oxygen (O2) can also be released when a bio-chemical reaction occurs downstream. Note that, one end

of liquid line is open to atmosphere to generate differential pressure. In yet another invention using solid propellants, Gangopadhyay et al. [17] used nano-size particles of solid propellant on a chip fitted with an igniter for possible application in micro thrusters. Use of serpentine channels is especially necessary in micro-scale devices because they help to increase residence time and enhance rates of catalytic reactions. Masel and Shannon [8] used such a channel to carry out catalytic combustion and use the force obtained for power generation or propulsion. The invention uses typical Y-type passive mixer [18] as shown in Fig. (6) for mixing the fuel and oxidizer and a long reaction section followed by an outlet nozzle. Ignition is achieved by electrically heating a Pt strip kept near the end of mixing section. Some significant aspects of the inventions described above will be now discussed. The micro-combustor patented by Masel and Shannon [8] is a comparatively simple device and an early demonstration of potential of micro-combustors as power sources. According to the description in their patent application, the combustor could be useful for propulsion. Considering the length of serpentine channel and the low operating temperature inherent in catalytic combustion, it remains to be seen how loss of momentum in the winding channel could be prevented. They have not provided any data on this aspect of invention. In patents related to thrusters [4, 10] a key feature is the potential for scalability; the invention disclosed by Youngner [4] having 250,000 thruster elements in one embodiment. These inventions also disclose their ability to control firing of individual thruster elements by relying on intricate configurations and electronics to achieve this. The microturbomachinery invented by Epstein et al. [3] has one of the most intricate structures

Fig. (4). Propulsion cell of Baricos et al. [10].

Fig. (5). Pressure generator system [7].

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Fig. (6). Y-combustor of Masel and Shannon [8].

among all the surveyed patents and represents dependence of micro machinery on manufacturing methods. Another invention made possible by concurrent progress in micro machining is the micro turbine engine of Fabian et al. [15], which has attainable rpm of about 500,000, similar to microturbomachinery. However, unlike Epstein et al., no performance data is reported by them. Gangopadhyay et al. [17] (and Mayor [19], to be discussed latter), address the problem of ignition at micro-scale in patents. This invention describes procedure for laying the nano energetic material on to a substrate and it is well characterized. Additionally, some diagnostic applications including, multi-point ignition, control of ignition delay from less than 1 Bs to 1 s and detection of flame propagation rate by a Pt layer able to detect variation in resistance are also envisaged. Invention of Perlo and Innocenti [14] is essentially a miniaturized conventional shock tube. Although the configuration is simple straight tube, performance data is lacking. All the micro-combustor patents described here rely on different ignition methods including heating [3, 5], hot wire [8] or HCCI [20, 21]. Due to small size of combustor, miniaturization of ignition mechanism is also necessary if external energy is required for ignition. Accordingly, Mayor [19] disclosed a miniaturized spark-plug igniter for ignition in a micro-combustion engine with a swing arm. Table 4 [3,4,7,8,10,14,15,17,19, 21-23] summarizes the available performance data and other key information including geometry details, fuel, catalyst, method of fabrication, etc. for patents related to propulsion. Based on the data, both medium to high aspect ratio, configurations are considered and most of them are based on Si as material of construction. Micro turbo-machinery patented by Epstein et al. [3] is evaluated with respect to its performance parameters including efficiencies and material integrity during prolonged use. Masel and Shannon [8] and Ahn et al. [7], among others, have also reported experimental demonstrations. 3.2. Electric Power Generation Heat released in micro-combustion can also be converted into usable electric power as claimed in the patents described in this section. Electric power generation based on thermoelectric effects is discussed first, followed by a patent utilizing thermophotovoltaic effect. Cohen et al. [5] patented a toroidal (double Swiss roll) micro-combustor based on

excess enthalpy flame concept, which has thermo-electric module attached on one or more of its internal walls. A typical configuration of this heat exchanger reactor appears in Fig. (7), according to which heat exchange with exhaust product gases pre-heats cold fuel-air mixture while flowing in counter-current direction to each other. Ignition occurs at a central location within the combustor. Nominally, Swiss roll shape is advantageous due its small volume requirements with variations involving rectangular [5] and circular [9] shapes being possible. Incoming reactant stream is in counter-current flow to the exhaust products, which causes preheating (refer to Fig. (2). Combustion occurs at the center of the rolled configuration. Package is nominally disc shaped. No estimates of conversion efficiency are reported in the patent description. It is notable that since heat loss reduces in serpentine coil configuration, even low caloric value fuel may burn comparatively easily in such combustors. Zvezdin et al. [26] patented a micro-combustor electricity generator which includes a micro-combustor operating upstream of an electricity generator The exhaust gases from micro-combustor shown in Fig. (8) emerge in plasma state and thus contain separated streams of cations and electrons. The latter are captured at electrodes insulated from cations, which induce an electrostatic negative charge in the prepared walled structure attached to the combustor, thus inducing a current. Using a more conventional concept, Yang et al. [20] disclosed a knock-based internal combustion engine (ICE) depicted in Fig. (9), useful for electricity generation. It uses two free pistons operated in formed cavities, in which homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI) is achieved. The arrangement is such that movement of fresh mixture and exhaust is coordinated with that of pistons using electric circuits, as depicted by positions 1, 2 and 3 in the figure. The gap between cavity wall and piston surface is ~2.5 Bm. In another patent described by Wade and Zak [21], HCCI is used for ignition but combustor design is different. It is a piston-less and deformable combustor that is said to obviate gas leakage due to imperfection in fabrication likely in a piston-based combustor such as the one described by Yang et al. [20]. Thiesen et al. [23] invented a multi-purpose micro-system that operates in one embodiment as a recipro-

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Table 4.

Important Data of Patents on Propulsion (NA: Not Applicable; --: Not Available)

Ref. No.




Description P  ---

[3] [4]

H2/Pt, Pd Nitrocellulose/NA

MM, CVD/Si-based MM/Si-based MM, UV-LIGA/

d=1.2e-02 m, t=3e-03 m --

Disc; rocket and gas turbine propulsion Micro-thruster array; Satellite attitude control

10-30 W --



Si-based, polymer, ceramic

3.2X3.2e-06 m2

Microfluidic actuation




--/ Pt

CVD, CSD/ SiC MM/ceramic, SiO2


Catalytic combustion; propulsion; electricity Actuator; conventional pyro-mechanism Semi-closed and formed tube deflagration/detonation; rocket propulsion, electricity, gas cutters UAVs, robotic missions Igniter chip Ignition in micro ICE HCCI, deformable combustor; power source for MEMS Energy harvesting and delivery Reciprocating engine/pump; power, cooling, compression











[15] [17] [19] [21] [22] [23]

--/NA Nano energetic/NA NA/NA H2, HC/NA NA --/NA

Mold SDM/Si3N 4 --/glass --/-DRIE/ piezo-electric NA Standard /--

d=2e-02 m, l<0.1 m 2.5X7.5e-04 m2 (substrate) d=3e-03 m, l=0.3 m -NA --

~100 W NA --NA --

-NA --NA --

Fig. (7). Heat exchanger reactor top view in Swiss-roll configuration [5, 9, 24].

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Fig. (8). Plasma-electricity generator [26].

Fig. (9). Knock based dual piston engine of Yang et al. [20] 1: compression, 2: expansion, 3: exhaust.

cating heat engine employing micro-combustion to supply power. A fabrication procedure for some elements is disclosed although performance parameters are not provided in the disclosure. Sinjin Smith et al. [24] described a thermoelectric generator as shown in Fig. (10), comprising a micro-combustor, micro-turbine and thermo-electric circuitry. A microcontroller that runs on power extracted from the generator itself is also provided. It is possible that different hydrocarbon-based fuels could be useful as a source of chemical energy. Notably, same combustor as described by Cohen et al. [5] is applicable in this invention and conversion efficiency is claimed to improve considerably (from 5% to 20%) by mounting thermo-electric module external to the combustor. In contrast, Cohen et al. mounted the module on internal walls. Considering now an invention, which utilizes SeebeckPeltier effect differently, Shin et al. [25] disclosed a

thermoelectric gas sensor employing catalytic micro-combustion by reacting the detected gas and thereby activating thermoelectric circuit to generate voltage. It can detect low concentration of gases since detectable and stable catalytic combustion can initiate at low gas concentrations, even below the lower flammability limit. The invention makes use of many structural materials including Si, gold (Au), titanium (Ti) and germanium (Ge). Performance data in terms of generated voltage for H2, CH4, CO, CO2, C2H6, CH3OH and C2H5OH as a function of temperature (298-413 K) are also provided for this system, according to which system shows maximum sensitivity to H2. It is also well documented in terms of performance data of various components. Norton et al. [27] patented an invention of catalytic micro-combustor shown in Fig. (11) that can generate heat or power. Performance data for this simple configuration is also available. The combustor achieves combustion at compara-

Fig. (10). Swiss-roll micro-combustor assembly of Sinjin Smith et al. [24].

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Fig. (11). Catalytic combustor of Norton et al. [27].

tively low temperatures while still maintaining high reaction rates by virtue of high available surface area per unit volume. Pt and Rh based catalysts are used and fuels including propane and hydrogen have been tested. No thermoelectric module has been devised but ready-made modules are utilized in the invention. The combustor is typical of other wrap-on designs utilizing thermoelectric and thermophotovoltaic effects for electricity generation [6], as well as heat exchanger reactors [5, 9, 24, 31, 32]. Perlo et al. [28] put to use the available surface area per unit volume in a homogeneous combustion chamber, as shown in Fig. (12), by employing a porous matrix of semiconductor solid in which pores themselves act as miniature confined combustors. However, due to high pressure drop in the matrix, the fuel and oxidizer need to be pumped at high pressure in the mixing zone. Conductive or semi-conductive material is coated on the surface of matrix to create potential difference. It is notable here that catalytic combustion is fundamentally different from homogeneous combustion. In the former, reactions occur on the catalyst surface and are dependent on surface area, pore size and diffusion rates. While it is difficult to sustain flame based homogeneous combustion in gaps less than quenching diameter, characteristic dimensions of the pores in catalyst-support matrix (~10 nm in case of Perlo et al. [28]) are far less than typical quenching diameter.

In a different application of micro combustion, shown in Fig. (13); one that uses a micro diffusion flame, Obata [29] used micro flame to heat a thermo-electric element in order to establish temperature gradient. This gradient is useful to produce emf using Seebeck effect. Micro-diffusion flame is a nearly spherical with diameter of the order of a few millimeters obtained at the end of a micro-tube and is precisely controllable. In the invention, it establishes at the tip of a capillary tube, which sucked liquid fuel from a fuel tank by means of capillary action induced in a cotton string. The stated advantage of the micro-combustion heat source is the stable emf obtainable due to precise control of the source. It is also possible to employ multiple micro flames alternatively. Use of environmentally benign liquid methanol (CH3OH) is another significant feature of this invention. CH3OH is less toxic when treated properly and is available as a by-product of other processes. Turning now to another example of use of liquid fuel in micro-combustion, Hsu [30] patented a micro-combustor in which passive transport of liquid coupled with atomization at the inlet to a microcombustor cavity resulted in heat generation by catalytic combustion which could be directed to a thermoelectric element for electricity generation. Detailed information on structure of elements including fluid switches, pneumatic injector, micro-combustor, expansion valve and thermoelectric module is provided in the patent application. The combustor can also be integrated with a fuel processor. This patent highlights need for devising or using low power ancillary devices used to make micro-combustor assembly,

Fig. (12). Microcombustor of Perlo et al. [28].

Fig. (13). Diffusion flame based power generator [29].

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which includes flow actuators and controllers also, so that net positive power can be obtained, preferably in the range of a few watts. The invention itself uses a combination of passive and active flow controllers, for example, liquid is transported by capillary action and then atomized by using gas pressure generated by its vapor. The patent by Hsu is a typical example of application of micro-combustion in power generation and it is fairly well documented. Apart from employing thermoelectric effects, at least one patent filed by Chou et al. [6] describes thermophotovoltaic method of converting heat into electric power. The combustor assembly is sketched in Fig. (14), while basic aspects were discussed previously. Different cylindrical micro-combustor geometries have been tested by the inventors and thin wall version with a sudden expansion at the inlet side (not shown here) is especially advantageous due to its relative insensitivity to changes in operating conditions and hence a more stable flame. Additional feature described therein is the use of straight channel configuration in catalytic (Pt) mode. However, it is possible that homogeneous flame based combustion will also be available considering the size of combustor and its configuration. Additionally, a filter, photovoltaic array and compact heat exchanger fins also constitute the assembly, which measures in the cm range. Patents by Yang et al. [20] and Wade and Zak [21] achieve HCCI in different manners, former achieving HCCI using a free piston configuration and latter by using deformable walls. Both the configurations are intricate although Wade-Zak configuration could be an improvement over the Yang et al. configuration because it allows easier control. The dual free piston configuration could suffer from leakage from piston sides (although the tolerance for gap is ~2.5 >m) which can reduce the compression ratio (reported ~30). There are multiple performance issues including synchronization of piston movement and noise while the device is claimed to be superior to conventional one piston-cylinder arrangement in terms of simplified inlet-exit of gases. WadeZak configuration avoids some of these problems by virtue of fundamentally different structure and has capability to operate with liquid or gaseous fuels. The inventors have also disclosed 2 or 4-stroke operation of the engine. Notably, both the inventions include moving parts. Swiss roll configurations appear in inventions disclosed by Cohen et al. [5], Maruta and Fujimori [9] and Sinjin Smith et al. [24], which considered its use for thermal application described in the next section. The basic difference between inventions of

Cohen et al. and Sinjin Smith et al. is that former used thermo-electric module on the internal walls while latter placed it on external walls. This arrangement may increase the conversion efficiency. Both the patents however do not provide performance data. Sinjin Smith et al. also used a turbine in addition to thermoelectric module to improve conversion efficiency and provide redundancy. Finally, patent by Zvezdin et al. [26] employs a novel concept of exhaust gases in plasma state but without any performance measurements. Some of the reported performance data is discussed now with reference to Fig. (15), which shows temperature profiles at walls obtained by Chou et al. [6] and Norton et al. [27] using H2-air system. Uniformity of wall temperature is essential for electricity generation in these inventions and both the systems fulfill this requirement. Additionally, it is observed that catalytic micro-combustion [27] and homogeneous micro-combustion [6] both can be successfully employed as they give similar temperature levels at the walls. Norton et al. also reported data on power generated as a function of voltage as shown in Fig. (16), although at a low efficiency, with maximum power ~1 W. Table 5 [5, 6, 20, 24, 26-30] summarizes some other reported data on important parameters and distinguishing features. The major disadvantage of power systems based on these converters is the poor system efficiency currently possible to obtain. The claimed inventions address this bottleneck and they have shown some improvement in efficiency. 3.3. Thermal Energy Combustion is an exothermic process and heat liberated in combustion can be supplied to some endothermic reactions like steam reformation to hydrogen in order to overcome activation energy of reactants. These and other reactions of this class have assumed importance in the hydrogen economy of the future in which hydrogen will replace hydrocarbon based fossil fuels. There are other miscellaneous uses of liberated heat, some of which are described in this section. As depicted in Fig. (17), Holladay et al. [31] patented a micro-combustor and micro-reformer combination in which combustor is in thermal contact with the reformer by means of conducting plates. Both are catalytic processes and low temperature stability of catalytic combustion helps in providing heat at required reforming temperature while maintaining a temperature difference of around 373 K. Since

Fig. (14). Micro-combustor for thermophotovoltaic electricity generation [6].

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Fig. (15). Comparison of performance data for thermoelectric [27] (hollow symbols) and thermophotovoltaic [6] (filled symbol) energy generators.

Fig. (16). Power developed as a function of voltage [27].

reformation occurs in a well-defined temperature range, the thermal source (micro-combustor) needs to be controlled actively. Steam required for reforming is obtained separately from external sources along with the hydrocarbon charge. To better economize the available heat, fluid lines are so arranged that they constitute counter-flow heat exchangers, as shown by arrows in the figure.

Rogers et al. [32] also disclosed an invention targeted for providing heat to reforming reactions by carrying out catalytic combustion in a multi-layer ceramic micro-combustorcum-reformer. As shown in Fig. (18), the catalyst is immobilized and supported on the ceramic material. Fabrication process involves layering of ceramic material followed by sintering to obtain three-dimensional structure. Temperature sensor maintains inlet conditions depending upon combustor

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Table 5.
Ref. No. [5]

Important Details of Patents on Electricity Generation (NA: Not Applicable; --: Not Available)
Fuel/Cat Fabrication /MOC NH3, H 2, HC/ED/metal do=2-15e-03 m h=1-6e-03 m MM, CVD/ SiC d=1-3e-03 m l=2e-02 m piston: d=0.1-3e-03 m; l=5-14e-03 m gap: ~2.5 Am Toroidal counter-flow; electricity generation Catalytic combustion; straight channel; electricity generation Knock-based synchronized pistons; electricity/heating/work Combustor of [5]; improved conversion; electricity generation Dimension Description P -Performance  --


C3H8, H2 /Pt

0.5-10 W




DRIE/Si, ceramic

21-63 W



HC/refer [5]







NA/ceramic, metal --/SS, ceramic


Exhaust in plasma state; electricity generation Catalytic combustion; higher SAV Porous; high pressure drop Electricity generation; diffusion flame Electricity generation




HC/Pt, Rh

h=1 Am-3e-03 m, V<500e-06 m


~1.0 W











d~ 1e-03 m



liquid HC/NA



Fig. (17). Heat exchanger reactor of Holladay et al. [31].

Fig. (18). Layered ceramic heat exchanger reactor of Rogers et al. [32].

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temperature. Although data for comparing performance of these competing configurations is not available, it is possible that both will be superior to conventional reformer-heat source devices. Note that the combination can act as a heat exchanger reactor because heat extracted from the combustor is used by nearest reformer of similar construction. Additionally, Rogers et al. disclosed detailed information on catalyst formulations and selection while performance data is provided by Holladay et al. Gardner et al. [33] did not employ any porous matrix; thus avoiding requirement of high inlet pressure. Instead, a catalyst coating on the surface of reactor wall is used. The patented micro-combustor is sketched in Fig. (19). They patented a simple catalytic micro-combustor in which a micro hotplate is coated with catalyst and premixed hydrocarbon-air/H2-air combustion occurs over the plate. The combustor has multiple envisaged applications including heating a GC column, flame ionization detector and on-chip thermal management. Hotplate is supported to avoid heat loss by inherently high surface area per unit volume while the plate itself has very low thermal conductivity and heat capacity. Stable micro-combustion even with very lean mixtures can thus be possible by suitably heating the catalyst coating on the plate using a resistive plate. Zenz et al. [13] disclosed a process for hyperthermia/ cauterization of a body part during surgical procedures in which a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen is combusted catalytically near the target tissue. This method is likely to be an improvement over existing methods like gamma radiation, lasers, etc. A micro-mixer mixes fuel and air upstream and fuel is synthesized by water electrolysis. They also disclose some control mechanism for the process. Mixture of suitable equivalence ratio burns in an open tube near the target tissue and heat is injected using a needle. Being the only product of reaction, surrounding tissue easily absorbs without any side-effects. Multiple applications of the process are also possible. Maruta and Fujimori [9] also patented a Swiss roll shaped micro-combustor with a circular, polygonal or square shape in top view intended for heating a semiconductor kept in a glass tube. With a particular panel heater-like arrangement, the heating temperature can be controlled precisely by individually controlling the combustor heaters.

Powell and Call [34] invented a catalytic hydrogen generator-micro-combustor device in which hydrogen generates in a catalytic membrane reactor using NH3 or HC, which are also useful in generating heat by combustion. Both the reactors are in thermal communication with each other via heat exchangers and heat released from combustion transfers to the endothermic hydrogen generation reaction. It is noteworthy here that hydrogen can be useful in a polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cell and in this sense; microcombustion actually facilitates fuel cells, a competitive technology. The invention may also help to reduce NH3 and CO residual levels commonly encountered in conventional configurations. In a patent focused on the problem of delivering energy to end applications, Trainor et al. [22] describe an electric circuit with certain elements that harvests energy from a source like a micro-combustor, stores the energy and delivers at appropriate time. The advantage of such an arrangement is that it results in a balanced system for wireless sensors, which cannot be accessible always and have fluctuating power demands in different modes of function like sensing, processing, communication and sleep. A number of methods other than micro-combustors could also generate the required energy. Lindsay et al. [35] describe an invention using heat generated in a micro-combustor for vaporization of certain liquids like water, menthol, etc. which are used in consumer products and medicinal treatments. A solid conductive interface like plate, rod or resistive heater will vaporize the stored liquid. A possible candidate micro-combustor mentioned in the patent is the microturbomachinery patented by Epstein et al. [3]. Table 6 [9, 13, 16, 25, 31-35] summarizes related information on the patents reviewed in this section. Tables 4, 5 and 6 reveal that a significant number of inventions rely on catalytic combustion and produce power around 10 W. Additionally, many inventions claim to be operable using a variety of fuels and, in fact, this capability to operate seamlessly with different fuels has been highlighted as an advantage in some cases [9, 25, 33] by way of generality. Homogeneous combustion based on HCCI is shown to produce maximum power per combustor although reported conversion efficiencies are 10-20%.

Fig. (19). Sketch of catalytic micro-combustor of Gardner et al. [33].

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Table 6.
Ref. No.

Important Details of Patents on Heating Applications (NA: Not Applicable; --: Not Available)
Fuel/Cat Fabrication /MOC Dimension Description P d=0.1-0.5 m h< 6e-03 m Swiss-roll configuration;panel heater -Performance  Radiationheat =0.6-0.65 --


HC, H2 /--

MM/steel, inconel


H2/Pt, Rh

MM/steel, ceramic -Refer [25]/ Si-based MM/ plastic, SiC Layer, sinter, immobilize/ Al2O3 , SiO2

d=0.2-0.4e-03 m



[16] [25]

-Any gas/ Pt, Pd


System architecture Gas sensor




H2, CH 3OH/Pt, Rh -/Cu, Pt, Zn, Pd, Ni, Ag

V<1e-07 m3

Catalytic combustion; steam reforming Catalytic combustion; integrated with reformer; refer [31]


min. C=0.8 t=0.05





HC, H2 / noble metal

Si MM/ SiC

d: few mm h=0.15-1e-03 m

Catalytic combustion; on-chip thermal management; flame ionization detector Hydrogen generation

>35 mW/Im2



HC, NH 3/ Pt, Rh


h=w=0.5-5e-03 m




Refer [3]

refer [3]

refer [3]

Gas dispenser

refer [3]

refer [3]

4. CURRENT & FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS Current state of technology in micro-combustion and its applications is shaped by past knowledge of catalytic processes and combustion on one hand, and rapid progress in the fabrication technology on the other. Based on these stimuli, propulsion, electricity generation and heating have received attention of the inventors and although technology is still in early stage of development, significant progress is occurring on a continuous basis. By far, application of micro-combustion to heating appears to be the most promising area. Thermal applications of micro-combustion are comparatively easier to realize and they have benefitted from successes in heterogeneous catalysis. It is also revealed that micro-combustion could be useful in diagnostics viz. flame ionization detection, gas sensing, etc. However, realization of successful micro-combustors is not an easy task since many factors play an important role in their development, which include: o Incomplete understanding of physics, especially combustion stability and thermal management, quenching effects, flame stretch, flame blowout, flash back, etc. o Inadequate empirical evidence and verification caused by experimental difficulty. o Intricacies in fabrication, especially at the lower limit of micro scale. Inventions address these factors with a varying degree of success but inefficient operation is a major drawback in

many cases. This fact is evident prominently electricity generation. Consequently, significant steps are necessary to enhance overall efficiency by innovations in material and design. In case of propulsion, while micro-combustor arrays for enhancing power and thrust output constitute a promising solution, development of control technology that helps in autonomous operation of individual elements in such arrays should now be a major goal in the near future. Secondly, innovations in combustor design reasonably satisfy the requirement of high as well as uniform wall temperatures necessary for electricity generation. However, low efficiency of downstream converters still limits electricity generation from the heat released by micro-combustion and will have to wait for comparable progress in that field. Additionally, it will be necessary to devise efficient start-up mechanisms so that dependence on external means is as minimum as possible. Finally, it is hoped that technological innovations complemented by better fundamental understanding of processes controlling micro-combustion would result in bridging the current gap in performance of micro-combustors and their conventional counterparts. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS One of the authors (SYJ) gratefully acknowledges the financial support in terms of research scholarship provided by IIT Kanpur. CONFLICT OF INTEREST The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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ABBREVIATIONS d h l P t V w c t = = = = = = = = = Diameter Height Length Power Thickness Volume Width Conversion efficiency (thermal energyelectrical energy) Thermal efficiency

[12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28]

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT One of the authors (SYJ) gratefully acknowledges the financial support in terms of research scholarship provided by IIT kanpur. CONFLICT OF INTEREST The authors declare no conflict of interest. REFERENCES
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