Epstein is the first to caution that the technology still isn’t ready for prime time. The microturbine generates a lot of heat, and he has yet to implement a solution for cooling the mechanism or its exhaust. After all, no one’s going to put a scorching hot cell phone to her ear. For now, Epstein says, "we have the world’s first jet-powered hair dryer." That’s no mere joke. He has actually been approached by a company interested in producing a hair dryer that isn’t plugged in (always an electrocution hazard). As it is, Epstein’s group has a contract with the Army that calls for the scientists to demonstrate a microturbine generator within four years. That deadline, he says, is no problem.
The development of the microturbine, which has borrowed heavily from the information revolution’s knack for chip making and for scaling big ideas down to size, augurs a sci-fi future of incredible shrinking machines, from artificial organs to pipsqueak robots, according to the experts. "The future is small," Epstein says. In other words, micromachines could well be the Next Big Thing.