Chemical plants are immense, with miles of distillation columns and reaction chambers the size of small buildings. A team of chemical engineers and microfabrication experts at MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories (MTL) has shrunken all that down to a “factory-on-a-chip” capable of spewing out commercial quantities of chemicals.
The MIT team, headed by chemical engineer Klavs Jensen and MTL director Martin Schmidt, has made milliliter quantities of chemicals, carrying out common reactions such as the oxidation of ammonia to form nitric oxide. The group is collaborating with DuPont to interconnect these microfactories; a cabinet stuffed with thousands of these chips could, Jensen estimates, produce several tons of a chemical per year. That would be plenty for many processes requiring small amounts of high-purity chemical.