Semiconductor technology may turn up the heat in the battle between the natural-gas and electric industries. The Gas Research Institute in Chicago, which is funded by gas utilities, is underwriting a project at the University of Illinois to develop "smart" gas burners that are more efficient and less polluting--plus, cheap to manufacture.
Ishwar Puri, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering on the university's Chicago campus, came up with the radical notion of using giant, 2-inch-square chips to process gas in kitchen ranges and industrial furnaces. No, the chips won't digitize the gas. But they will have little grooves that funnel fuel to the flame, and the sides of the grooves will carry electrical charges. Pulsing the charges will create tiny vortexes in the gas-and-air mixture. The improved mixture, Puri says, should yield hotter flames without producing more nitrous-oxide pollutants, as usually happens at higher temperatures. Puri expects to have silicon prototypes by yearend.