Tiny Switches Could Lead to Better Battery Life

  Suppose you were told to keep a light switch from sticking. No problem, right? A little lubricant in the right spot and you'd be good to go. 

But what if that switch was roughly the size of a human hair and had to move back and forth more than 1,000 times a second? 

The solution, of course, isn't fast, tiny fingers; it's the engineering know-how of Brigham Young University professor Brian Jensen, whose work with tiny electrical switches (categorized as micro-electro mechanical systems, or MEMS) may one day extend the battery life in devices like your cell phone and laptop computer. 

“A popular question right now is, ‘Are we at the frontier of battery technology?'” said Jensen, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “Battery life is what it is at the moment, and if we can find ways for these devices to lose less power, we can make them last longer.” 

Jensen's research, published in the June 15 issue of the “Journal of Applied Physics,” focuses on overcoming the limitations of MEMS switches, bringing us one step closer to better battery performance. MEMS switches are made of two miniscule pieces of metal, each roughly the size of a human hair, that are pushed together, allowing a signal to flow between them. 

“They would mostly be used in communications devices, like a cell phone, where you'd want them to be able to switch a signal back and forth between different parts of a circuit very rapidly,” said Jensen, explaining that cell phones use one antenna to both transmit and receive signals. “A system that used MEMS switches could feasibly route those signals with lower power loss and reduce the number of electrical components needed to make the phone work.”

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