Nanotech May Be At Center Of Hurricane
Experts are often fooled when they try to plot the course of hurricanes such as Frances and Charley, which recently hit Florida.
Charley, which struck three weeks before
this weekend's more predictable Frances disaster, had been expected to
strike Tampa. The city was evacuated at a cost of $500,000 to $1
million per mile of coastline.
But the storm veered and came ashore 70 miles south of Tampa, catching authorities off guard.
Weather forecasting, even when it comes
to hurricanes, is notoriously inaccurate. Satellites or plane-dropped
devices have limited abilities. That's because few data come from
inside the storm itself, making it hard to tell what it will do.
Now Ensco, a tech R&D firm in Falls
Church, Va., says it has a foolproof way to predict the path of
rampaging hurricanes and other severe weather events.
The firm's developing a system that uses helium balloons loaded with molecule-sized sensors.
The NASA (news - web sites)-funded project is still in the design stage.
Analysts say the market for such small
gear -- and the science behind it called nanotechnology -- will
eventually total billions or even trillions of dollars.
Designs Other Test Systems
The grapefruit-sized balloons are
designed to bob around the atmosphere by the thousands, sending data on
developing weather patterns.
"These balloons would be everywhere. They
would float and become part of the circulation of the storm," said Mark
Adams, Ensco's chief engineer.
The $85 million, 700-worker company designs tech systems for defense and civilian customers.
The balloon project is funded by NASA's
Institute for Advanced Concepts. A working prototype of the balloon is
expected in about two years.
The gas-filled balloons will have a very
thin shell, less than 100 microns thick, that have nanotech devices
embedded on the surface.
The sensors would be wired to a tiny on-board computer that relays data wirelessly back to meteorologists.
Light, To Add Flight Time
This would provide details on
temperature, pressure, moisture and wind speed. These are data that
must be collected piecemeal now with other devices.
The total weight of each nanotech-packed
balloon would be only 1 or 2 ounces. That would let it float for long
periods in the atmosphere.
Adams says Ensco plans to yank production
costs down so the balloons can be produced by the thousands. "They
would be so cheap, they would be disposable," he said.
The nanosensors that will be part of the balloon's skin are still in development.
But Adams doesn't foresee any problems.
He says there's been plenty of progress in
making miniature sensors that use nanotech parts, especially ones that
integrate tiny devices on the surface of a silicon chip.
Adams says such tiny sensors that sense temperature, humidity and pressure are already on the market.
John Manobianco, Ensco's director of
advanced nanotechnology, says inventions like nano-balloons will turn
disaster-preparedness into a more exact science.
He says cities and individuals can avoid
wasting time and money on useless evacuations. On the flip side, more
accurate predictions can save lives and property.
"If you could narrow the area in which a
hurricane is expected to strike by just five or 10 miles, at a savings
of about $1 million per mile, you can do the math and figure out how
much money you can save," Manobianco said.
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