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Scientists Build Integrated Mechanical Circuit That Allows Material To "Think"

Scientists have developed a computer that can do calculations but only if you squish it.

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Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockAug 26 2022, 16:07 UTC
The mechanical integrated circuit being used. Image Credit: Charles El Helou/Penn State
The mechanical integrated circuit being used. Image Credit: Charles El Helou/Penn State

Do you ever feel you want to squash your computer to make it go faster? Well, if you like a “hands-on” approach researchers have developed a computer that can do calculations but only if you squish it. As mechanical stress is applied to it, the computer “senses” and “thinks” converting the deformation into an operation.

Reporting in Nature, researchers have developed a mechanical integrated circuit made of rubber with connections of rubber-silver that can compute complex arithmetic. The metamaterial reacts to the forces applied to it just like our skin responds to a stimulus. Well, we don’t start doing sums if we touch a hot stove, but the mechanism is similar.  

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"We have created the first example of an engineering material that can simultaneously sense, think and act upon mechanical stress without requiring additional circuits to process such signals," principal investigator Professor Ryan Harne of Penn State said in a statement. "The soft polymer material acts like a brain that can receive digital strings of information that are then processed, resulting in new sequences of digital information that can control reactions."


In one of the applications tested, the material was used to add two numbers together. The numbers were selected by squishing the rubber block left and right. The material then does the rest, performing the logical operation. Mechanical information is turned into electrical signals.

The material has a lot of other possible applications. It could be used not just to respond to a mechanical stimulus, it could detect and respond to radio waves, or be adapted to communicate specific light signals. A material that "senses" and "thinks" can be used in autonomous search-and-rescue systems, in infrastructure alerts and repairs, and even in bio-hybrid materials that could be used to detect and isolate pathogens.

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"We are currently translating this to a means of 'seeing' to augment the sense of 'touching' we have presently created," Harne said. "Our goal is to develop a material that demonstrates autonomous navigation through an environment by seeing signs, following them and maneuvering out of the way of adverse mechanical force, such as something stepping on it."

The approach shows that you don’t need silicon semiconductors to create simple and scalable computing.


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