CORVALLIS - With members of the United States armed forces increasingly faced with the prospect of serving or fighting in nations that may have sweltering summer temperatures, a new push is under way to develop a personalized "cooling system" that could help prevent heat stroke.

Toward that goal, Oregon State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., have received a three-year, $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop an effective, lightweight, individual cooling unit using the latest concepts in microtechnology.

When perfected, the new system might be of significant value to members of the armed forces, especially soldiers who might be exposed to chemical or biological weapons and must wear airtight protective clothing. In addition, it could assist other emergency personnel who have to work in extremely hot or confining situations - firefighters, people wearing fully-protective outfits to respond to hazardous material spills, police wearing bulky bulletproof vests, and others.

"In a very hot climate a soldier in full battle dress can get heat stroke in 10-20 minutes, and the effectiveness of fighting units can be dramatically reduced," said Kevin Drost, a professor of mechanical engineering at OSU. "For years the military has wanted some type of individualized cooling system that service people could use in certain situations, but they were never able to develop something lightweight, versatile and durable enough to be practical."

Special types of shirts have already been developed, Drost said, that contain tubing through which coolants could be circulated and thereby reduce the heat overload on the body. But any existing types of refrigeration units to cool those circulating liquids are far too heavy and have to be run by large, bulky batteries.

As an alternative, OSU and PNNL experts in new types of microtechnology are planning to develop and perfect a very small, heat-actuated heat pump that uses diesel fuel as an energy source. The energy source for cooling is a small, compact combustion system that could provide about 10,000 watts of energy per kilogram of fuel, far exceeding the performance of batteries. The entire energy plant and heat pump might weigh only 3-4 pounds and have the capability of cooling a person for several hours before re-fueling.

A prototype of the new system should be complete within three years, officials say.

The research is another initiative of OSU's evolving work in microtechnology-based energy and chemical systems, or MECS initiative, based largely in its College of Engineering.

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Kevin Drost, 541-737-2575