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Fall 2002

Vol. 03, No. 1


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Big things very small packages

In the palm of his hand, Brian Morlock holds what looks like the innards of an entire computer. It's got the green board with the ziggy lines, a round thing that's probably a battery and a little rectangle that could be the processor.

In fact, even though it is only 2 inches by 2 inches, it is the giant version of what it will be. This is a computer, the first iteration of a multi-functional wireless sensor. After a variety of sensors - acoustic, thermal, chemical, infrared, biological - are fitted to this model, the next step is to design it to be the size of a grain of rice. Oh, and it needs to cost only pennies apiece to produce and be able to operate for years on ultra-low power.

The faculty lead on this project, Joel Jorgenson, can tell you exactly when the research and design started - May 13 - and how long it took to complete this fully-functional model - three weeks - and all future deadlines. He knows the date each of the four graduate students was added to the group and the design engineer hired for the project, when the two labs were fully equipped. He is matter-of-fact about both the expectations and the timeframe, confident in his team, but the pressure is surely on.

This is one of several new projects at North Dakota State University funded by the Department of Defense and in partnership with private research and development companies. In this case, NDSU has divvied up the work with Alien Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that brings some serious proprietary information to the mix. Results and deadlines are serious business.

All told, NDSU expects $80 million to $100 million in DOD research contracts in the next few years. The impact is being felt on the campus in the form of new graduate assistantships, new high-end staff positions, faculty positions, and an additional building at the new Research and Technology Park.

Much publicity surrounded the initial announcement of NDSU's foray into the nanotechnology arena last August. Throughout the ensuing months, NDSU administrators took turns carrying around the demonstrator 1-inch vial. They took every opportunity to pull the bottle from their shirt pockets, give it a little shake and tell that those tiny flakes are actually 100,000 computer chips. People at NDSU are clearly thrilled to be right smack in the middle of this movement.

This is a computer, the first iteration of a multi-functional wireless sensor. After a variety of sensors - acoustic, thermal, chemical, infrared, biological - are fitted to this model, the next step is to design it to be the size of a grain of rice.

Little did Morlock know he'd be doing this level of research and development. When he graduated first in a class of 17 at Tuttle-Pettibone High in 1998, he only knew that on the family farm he found it "interesting" to fiddle with electronic equipment and the home computer. In 2002, Morlock was pondering his options as he completed his bachelor's degree, "waffling" between applying to graduate schools and finding a job. The industry openings were mostly in controls, though, and his interest lies in digital design. As is often the case, his answer came by chance, when he attended a seminar Jorgenson delivered to recruit graduate students to NDSU.

Just a couple of years ago, the Brian Morlocks of North Dakota and this region would have had to go away to places like MIT or Berkeley to do this sort of work on designing components this small and that use low power.

Now Morlock is integral to the team developing electronics that could, literally, change the world.

The sensors are being developed on DOD's dime for specific military uses, but will adapt to everyday life in extensive ways. Just as the quartermaster supply officer needs to know which cans of soup are getting old and should be shipped out for use, a supermarket can track and rotate stock. Every item at the store can have a sensor that tells the consumer how long it's been there and to what temperature variations it's been exposed. When shoppers are done filling their carts, they simply will exit past a receiver that reads all of the sensors and tallies the bills. No more lines, no more shoplifting.

The antenna on the sensor communicates with a remote computer via radio waves, currently twice per second at 100-plus feet away. Jorgenson describes the concept of the very small sensor keeping in touch with the receiver "like two people with one flashlight," a helpful analogy for the general population, known in the field as backscatter modulation. "One has a light and the other has a mirror and either reflects or doesn't reflect the light." The receiver has the flashlight and the sensor has the mirror to reflect data when queried.

Jorgenson says the tricky part about the project is meeting both the requirements of very small size and low power. The tradeoff in design is getting information only as often as needed, since that helps save battery power.

As group leader, Jorgenson, at 37, has 10 years of industry experience along with several years in the classroom. Local and national companies have been calling, as well as other scientists in the North Dakota University System. Journal articles are in final preparation stages and a patent transmittal form is on file. A number of North Dakota manufacturing companies are in touch about customizing sensors, and people from Minot, North Dakota, and Minot State University have invited Jorgenson for a second round of talks.

The group, now splayed around campus in two temporary labs - one in the basement of the chemistry building and the other on second floor of the electrical engineering building - eventually will join together in 2,500 square feet of the university's second new building at the Research and Technology Park. Groundbreaking for the building was in September.

-Laura McDaniel

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.