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Mater. Res. Soc. Symp. Proc. Vol.

973 © 2007 Materials Research Society 0973-BB02-01

Micro- and Nano-Instrument Power

Vassili Karanassios
Chemistry, University of Waterloo, 200 University Avenue West, Waterloo, Ontario, N2L 3G1,
Canada

ABSTRACT

For the last several years, we have been developing and characterizing “mobile” micro-
and nano-instruments for use on-site (e.g., in the field). Although such portable, battery-operated
instruments are much smaller that their laboratory-scale counterparts, sometimes they provide
comparable performance and they often offer improved capabilities. As such, they are expected
to cause a paradigm shift in classical chemical analysis by allowing practioners to “bring the lab
(or part of it) to the sample”. Two classes of examples will be used as the means with which to
illustrate the power of micro- and nano-instruments. One class involves a “patient” as the
sample and an ingestible capsule-size spectrometer used for cancer diagnosis of the gastro
intestinal tack as (part of) “the lab”. The other involves the “environment” as the sample and a
portable, battery-operated, miniaturized instrument that utilizes a PalmPilot™ with a wireless
interface for data acquisition and signal processing as (part of) “the lab”. To discuss how to
electrically power such miniaturized instruments, mobile energy issues will be addressed.
Particular emphasis will be paid to current or anticipated future applications and to the paradigm
shifts that may prove essential in powering the next generation of miniaturized instruments.

INTRODUCTION

In classical chemical analysis, samples are collected in the field and are brought to a lab
for chemical analysis by bench-top size instrumentation. Due to their size and weight, such
instruments are typically anchored to a lab. And, due to their electrical power requirements they
are tethered to a wall socket. But in many cases it will be ideal if an instrument (i.e., part of the
lab) was brought to the sample. Applications abound in environmental monitoring and in
clinical analysis. Miniaturized versions of large-size instruments that are smaller, cheaper,
smarted and faster (at producing results) will cause a paradigm shift in classical chemical
analysis by enabling practitioners to bring (part of) the lab to the sample. Despite of the
intellectual appeal of employing miniaturized instrumentation, taking the lab (or part of it) to the
sample creates a number of challenging scientific and technological questions. Among them,
would such instrumentation follow scaling laws? Would they have the power (i.e., performance
characteristics) to effectively complete their large-size counterparts? A related question that
inevitably arises is: where would such instruments get their electrical power? In this paper, these
questions will be addressed in some detail and “mobile energy” successes and issues will be
outlined.
TAKING THE LAB TO THE SAMPLE, PART I

In the first example that will be used to illustrate the power of miniaturized instruments,
“the lab” is an ingestible, pill-size fluorescence-based system for cancer diagnosis of the Gastro
Intestinal (GI) track and the field is a “patient”. Traditionally, endoscopic procedures involving
catheter-based systems are used to provide visual observations of the GI-tack (Fig. 1a). Due to
their invasive nature, catheter-based endoscopic procedures are uncomfortable (at best). As well
as, they are relatively expensive because they require trained personnel to administer the
procedure. To reduce cost and patient discomfort, camera-based non-invasive procedures that
can be done by the patient have recently been introduced (Fig. 1b) [1, 2, 3].

Figure 1. Catheter-based versus camera-based endoscopy (see text for discussion).

Although specifications differ, the typical pill-size camera-based system is the size of a
large vitamin pill (about 1 inch by 0.5 inch), it weighs less-that 4 gram and it has a minimum
detectable feature-size of about 0.1 mm. A schematic illustration of a pill-size camera-based
endoscopic system (from Given Imaging) is shown in Fig. 2 [1]. Once swallowed, the camera
travels down the 6-8 m of the GI tack and transmits (via a wireless interface and telemetry
means) images at a rate of 2-5 frames per sec to wireless sensors and to instrumentation attached
to belt of the patient. Images are retrieved by the physician for further processing and inspection.
At the end of the procedure, the camera is excreted. At present, there are alternatives to the
PillCam discussed above. For example, the RF System Lab [2] Norika3 and Sayaka capsules;
the Olympus EndoCapsule (launched in Europe in Oct. 2006) [3], and the under-development
“wireless spectroscopic compact photonic explorer for diagnostic optical imaging” from the
institute for ultra-fast spectroscopy and lasers, of the City College, City Univ. of New York [4].
Figure 2. Schematic illustration of a PillCam-based system.

Currently, the PillCam system appears to be the most widely used and will be discussed
in some detail. The system draws its electrical power from two, commercially-available,
Eveready SR927W watch-batteries. A simplified schematic illustration of the Eveready battery
is shown in Fig. 3 along with the chemical reactions thought to take place.

Anode cup
Zn (negative electrode
+ Hg + Electrolyte)
Membrane
Cathode (positive electrode, Ag2O,
alkaline media)
Cathode cup
Anode reaction: Zn + 2OH -
ZnO + H O +2e
2
-

Cathode reaction: Ag O + H O + 2e 2 2
-
2Ag + 2OH -

Total battery reaction: Ag O + Zn 2 2Ag + ZnO


Figure 3. Simplified schematic of battery used in the PillCam system and of the
chemical reactions thought to take place.

A detailed illustration of the battery shown in the top part of Fig. 3 is included in Fig. 4.
Figure 4 also reveals that problems arise by removing Hg (a known environmental pollutant, as
will be briefly discussed later). Although these problems are currently being addressed, is it
possible to eliminate altogether use of a battery from the capsule? And if so, where would the
capsule get its electrical power from?
Figure 4. Illustration of the increase in H2 gas evolution (potentially causing problems)
observed due to removal of mercury (Hg).

An alternative to the “watch-size” batteries used by the PillCam may be provided by


using thin-film (15 µm) Li batteries developed on ceramic substrates by Oak Ridge National
Laboratory [5]. Although these batteries have been specifically developed for biomedical
applications, their energy storage is likely not sufficient for the (approximately) 8 hours it takes
for a capsule-based camera to travel from its entry point to its exit port and to take a maximum of
5 frames per second.

Alternatives to batteries have also been explored. For example, to free up space inside
the capsule and to add additional functionality, such as an improved guidance system, a drug
delivery module and a body fluid sampling sub-system, the Olympus EndoCam [3] does not use
a battery; instead it delivers energy/power to the capsule from outside the body using
electromagnetic induction via coils. The RF System Lab capsules [2] do not use batteries either,
they use wireless power transmission approaches instead.

Freeing up cargo-space inside the capsule (either by reducing battery-size or by coupling


energy from outside the body), opens up new possibilities (in addition to those already
mentioned above). For instance, significant additional medical information can be obtained and
earlier cancer detection can be enabled by incorporating spectroscopic detection via photon-
induced fluorescence (rather than using color still pictures or video). The well established
dictum in medical diagnosis that “cancer can be most effectively treated when diagnosed at an
early stage” applied here makes development of fluorescence endoscopy essential for early GI-
track cancer diagnosis. Simply explained, the benefits of fluorescence detection are born out of
the experimental observation that healthy tissue, when irradiated by UV-light has a different
fluorescence spectral-response than cancerous tissue.

To take advantage of the fluorescence, catheter-based fluorescence endoscopic systems


(similar in concept to those shown in Fig. 1) have been commercialized [6]. But as is typical of
fluorescence-based measurement systems, an appropriate light source (for tissue excitation) is
required, as is a “spectrometer” (be it grating-based or optical filter-based) to provide spectral
isolation (thus also reducing false positives). As is typical of fluorescence systems regardless of
size, the spectrometer must be equipped with a detector with a spectral response in the targeted
wavelength range. A schematic illustration of a concept diagram of a fluoresce-based
endoscopic capsule system is shown in Fig. 5.

Figure 5. Concept diagram of a fluorescence-based endoscopic system in a capsule.

To fit in the tight space of the capsule (even after reduction or elimination of the space
taken up by the batteries), a grating-based spectrometer must have a very short focal length (i.e.,
a few mm). But, would a spectrometer with such a very short focal length have the required
spectral resolution? Back-of-the-envelope spectroscopic calculations reveal that it would,
provide that a focal length of a few mm and a grating with ~1 µm per groove is used. A more
restrictive spectral-alternative may be provided by using optical filters. In my laboratories, these
possibilities are currently being explored. As are issues concerning stray light, overlapping
orders, sensitivity, spectral response and signal-to-noise ratio. Regardless of implementation
specifics and in many respects, the approach is expected to “bring the instrument to the patient”.

It is worth emphasizing that incorporation of a spectrometer inside the capsule (of the
type shown in Fig. 5) would require a reduction of the space taken up by the battery (if a battery-
operated capsule is to be used). In the following narrative, additional examples will be used to
further illustrate the need for smaller-size and more powerful batteries and the significance and
applicability of “mobile energy” in miniaturized instrument development.

TAKING THE LAB TO THE SAMPLE, PART II

To further illustrate the need for and the potential of mobile energy, the idea of bringing
the lab to the sample will be expanded. In this case, the environment will be considered as the
“sample” and (part of) the “lab” will be a portable, battery-operated instrument for measurement
of pollutants in the environment. The first example involves (near) real-time determination of
Mercury (Hg) in the environment. Mercury has well documented toxicological and significant
adverse health effects. It also has an appreciable vapor pressure at room temperature. Mercury
in the environment originates from anthropogenic sources, such as broken fluorescent lights and
Hg thermometers; forest fires; coal-burning power generation stations; Hg-wetted relays (some
are still installed in older elevators); and from dental clinics that still use traditional Hg-amalgam
tooth fillings. A portable spectrometer that can “sniff” Hg hot-spots would be indispensable, for
instance, for Hg determinations from accidentally broken Hg-containing products, from coal-
burning power generation stations (effects depend on prevailing wind direction), in elevator
shafts or from improperly disposed batteries-Fig. 4. Alternatively, Hg can originate from
sources as natural as degassing of soils and oceans. In this case, all one can do is monitor the
environment for Hg emissions; such emissions cannot be controlled or eliminated. But how does
one sample air in the environment to bring it to the lab for determination of its Hg content?
Clearly, measuring Hg concentrations on-site will be invaluable.

The typical fluoresce or absorption based Hg-measuring system is bench-top size and is
transportable (at best). Thus, it cannot be taken out of the lab for use on-site (i.e., in the field).
In my laboratories, we developed a portable, shoe box-size, battery-operated fluorescence-based
Hg-measuring system for use in the field. For this application, we used a commercially-
available, re-chargeable NiMH battery of the type found in most power tools. Further
miniaturization to a shirt-pocket size system is expected to reduce further power requirements
and to facilitate portability and use in the field.

Despite of the usefulness and the potential of portable instruments for monitoring the
environment, the question that inevitably arises is: Would they have the analytical performance
characteristics to compete effectively with their large scale counterparts? Using Hg and the shoe
box-size Hg-system as an example, they would (as concluded from the results shown in Fig. 6).
In the examples of Fig. 6, individuals simply exhaled into the shoe box-size Hg prototype
mentioned above. As shown in Fig. 6, signals were not observed when individuals with no tooth
fillings or with modern, ceramic tooth fillings exhaled into the system. But those with Hg-
amalgam tooth fillings (either Ag or Au) showed signals with an appreciable signal-to-noise
ratio. Clearly, the miniaturized hg-system obeyed scaling laws and it performed equally as well
(if not better than) its bench-top counterpart. Thus, it can be concluded that this system can be
used to detect Hg concentrations in air even at background levels.

Figure 6. Signal response for Hg obtained by exhaling into the show box-size system.
Another example involves miniaturization of Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) sources
for either optical emission or mass spectrometry. The ICP is a workhorse in environmental
analysis, there are 100,000’s of ICPs in use world-wide. Despite of their wide use and
applicability, ICPs require 1-2 kW of power and use 15-20 Lit/min of Argon gas. As such, they
cannot be (easily) taken out of the lab and into the field. Recently, we miniaturized and micro
fabricated plasmas in the form of Micro Plasma Devices (MPDs) that we operated from a battery
using mL/min of gas (thus also significantly reducing operating costs). Thus far, we tested many
geometries (e.g., planar, tubular) on a variety of substrates (Si, glass, quartz). In the example
shown in Fig. 7, MPDs were even fabricated using inexpensive plastic substrates, thus making
fabrication of credit card-size recyclable instruments possible. Electrical power to the MPD was
provided from a re-chargeable, commercially-available NiMH battery of the type commonly
used in power tools [7]. Further miniaturization is expected to lead to MPDs operated from even
smaller batteries, thus further enhancing their portability, applicability, utility and operating
costs. Work in this area is in progress. Due to their ability to form ions, the feasibility of using
MPDs as ions sources for mass spectrometry has also been demonstrated. Similar to the Hg
measuring system (mentioned above) MPDs also followed scaling laws (and although not shown
for brevity), their performance (monitored by both optical emission and mass spectrometry) was
found to be comparable (within an order of magnitude) to that obtained using large-size ICPs [7].

ICP

2 cm

Microplasma
Figure 7. From large-size ICPs to battery-operated micro-plasmas on-a-chip.

To enable portability even further and to reduce weight and power-consumption, we


replaced the laptop we used for data acquisition and signal processing with a PalmPilot [8] and
we have now added a wireless data acquisition interface to it. An example is shown in Fig. 8.
a) b)

Figure 9. a) PalmPilot using in-house developed software for data acquisition and signal
processing. And b) commercially-available wireless data acquisition interface (a coin has been
included for size comparisons).

The examples briefly discussed above were selected to illustrate the potential and
capabilities of miniaturized instruments and the strength of the paradigm shift mentioned above.
For brevity, additional examples will not be discussed.

But as power consumed by micro- and nano-instruments decreases, another conceptual


question arises: is mobile energy in the form of a battery always needed in order to obtain
mobility? Some examples have already been mentioned. Is it possible (or desirable) to take
advantage of unconventional power-harvesting approaches? What would be the paradigm shifts
required to make such unconventional approaches effective? Would it be that a hybrid approach
in which power is harvested whenever possible, but used only when needed is a “greener” (i.e.,
environmentally friendly) if not an “ideal” approach?

PARADIGM SHIFTS IN MOBILE ENERGY

In broad terms, energy harvesting can be classified in 6 main areas.

1. Energy harvesting: Solar photons or ambient light. In a typical sunny day (at
noon), earth’s surface receives about 100 mW/cm2. Ambient light (form fluorescent lights)
generates about 7 mw/cm2. Single crystal Si is 10-30% efficient whereas polysilicon is 10-15%
efficient. Thus far, both sc-Si and polysilicon found numerous applications in daily life. More
recently, photoelectric dyes and other organic or polymeric molecules are beginning to be used.
In particular, spray-on solar cells on plastic can find applications in remote locations or
supplement energy for entire buildings. Solar (or ambient light) to electrical power conversion
may be used to provide electrical power to miniaturized environmental analysis instruments
located in remote or inaccessible locations, in particular for unattended operation.

2. Energy harvesting: Taking advantage of temperature gradients. Exploitation of


artificial or natural ambient temperature gradients has the potential to provide mobile energy to
low power devices and miniaturized instruments. For example, a maximum power (limited by
Carnot’s cycle) due to temperature gradients (and a 10 degree change) is estimated to be around
100 mW/cm2. Devices exploiting temperature gradients include those that take advantage of the
thermoelectric (Seeback) effect and produce power in the micro-Watt per cm2 range, those that
operate as piezo thermal engines. Some devices that take advantage of temperature gradients
have been described recently in the Journal of Intelligent Material Systems and Structures [9].
Unless temperature gradients continuously cycle, temperature-gradient power generation may
have to be supplemented by additional power harvesting and storage approaches.

3. Energy harvesting: Pressure gradients. Exploitation of ambient pressure variations


can be used to harvest energy. For instance, the average daily pressure changes by about 0.2
inches of Hg. Although an “acoustic pressure” has been described [10], to my knowledge there
are no active researchers in this area. The “pressure gradient” approach may find applicability in
powering (or providing supplemental energy) to micro- or nano-instruments operated in remote
or inaccessible locations, in particular, when solar energy is not available.

4. Energy harvesting: Vibrations or other motions. Many mechanical motions (e.g.,


vibrations/rotations) can be used to harvest energy. Examples include engines of all types and
tires in automobiles. Several miniature designs have been described [11, 12] and these can be
used to harvest energy for sensors or miniaturized instruments. For example, they can be used
for real-time measurement of the composition of car-exhaust gases or for determination of the air
quality in the cabin of an automobile.

5. Energy harvesting: Air flow/air currents. In this case, power output and efficiency
varies with air flow velocity and motor efficiency. Air flow may be used on moving vehicles or
on flying airplanes to power sensors or miniaturized instruments. Micro Electro Mechanical
System (MEMS) turbines have already been developed (and promoted by MIT researchers) [14,
15]. Could they be used to power miniature instruments? This possibility is worth exploring.

6. Energy harvesting: Human power. It is estimated that the average human dissipates
(at rest) about 100 Watts, but it can dissipate as much as 1 kWatt during strenuous exercise. In
addition to exercise, there are numerous opportunities to harvest human energy to power
electronic devices. Converting energy generated by simply walking has already been exploited
[16]. Other energy harvesting approaches include exploitation of temperature gradients
(through the skin), blood pressure gradients and electrochemical conversion of glucose, for
instance, to power implantable medical devices.

In addition to the approaches mentioned above, the are other means and ways of
harvesting/storaging energy, for instance, by using miniaturized fuel cells, heat engines, not-so-
desirable radioactive sources and (among others) capacitors/ultra-capacitors. There are a number
of nano-science and nano-technology approaches that promise to improve either conversion- or
storage-efficiency. Overall, it seems that for many non-implantable applications, energy
harvesting supplemented by energy storage provides an ideal and greener approach. Thus,
future miniaturized instruments will benefit greatly from developments of greener batteries that
are rice grain-size or even sesame seed-size grain. For implantable bio-micro- or bio-nano-
instruments, taking advantage of human power may provide unique solutions.
CONCLUSIONS

The quantifiable need and immense economic benefits derived from different mobile
energy approaches that power portable electronic devices, such as, millions of laptops, about a
billion of cell phones, pods and MP-players (of all types) are obvious and immense. In many
respects, they are driving research and development in mobile energy. As highlighted above, the
current generation of miniaturized instruments is only now beginning to take advantage of
“mobile energy” developments and to benefit from them. No doubt this trend will continue in
the future. At present, there seems to be a much less quantifiable need and no immense
economic benefits from development of new, unconventional, disruptive-technologies that will
facilitate future power-harvesting approaches of the type described above. Despite of the lack of
obvious need and immense economic benefits, it is postulated that the potential societal benefits
expected to arise from development of approaches that provide uninterrupted power to
implantable and other health-related micro- or nano-instruments (e.g., for diagnostic, drug-
delivering, tissue- or fluid-sampling for diagnostic or biopsy applications) will be priceless.

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At the date this paper was written, URLs or links referenced herein were deemed to be useful
supplementary material to this paper. Neither the author nor the Materials Research Society
warrants or assumes liability for the content or availability of URLs referenced in this paper.

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