Stanford bioengineers build a synchronous computer that operates using moving water droplets

Bioengineers at the Stanford University develop computer that operates on water droplets

Usually its a thumb rule to keep computers, laptops away from liquids. However, bioengineers at the Stanford University have built a synchronous computer that works on the physics of moving water droplets. The researchers designed an innovative synchronous computer that is powered by water droplets. 

Manu Prakash is an Indian by birth. Presently he is an assistant professor of bioengineering at the Stanford University and the one who was in news last year for building a paper microscope.

Now, this year the genius has come up with a ‘synchronous computer’ that works by using the physics of moving water droplets. Prakash and his two students have persistently worked for an entire decade to develop this unique computer that can work on moving water droplets instead of electrons.

Basically, Prakash and his team built a system in which tiny droplets were trapped in a magnetic field and when this field is flipped or rotated the droplets start moving in a specific direction and distance. This system enacted like a computer clock which is an essential component of computer.

What are computer clocks and why are they so important: Computer clocks are an essential part of almost every modern convenience which includes the smartphones, DVRs, airplanes, Internet. Without a computer clock these modern computer programmed amenities cannot operate. Every computer program requires a series of concurrent operations to be performed in a particular sequence a computer clock makes sure that all these operations start and stop at the same pre decided times thus ensuring that the operations take place in proper synchronization.

Prakash said: “The reason computers work so precisely is that every operation happens synchronously; it’s what made digital logic so powerful in the first place.”

This synchronous computer is efficient to perform any function that is done by any conventional computer though it could be at a slower rate because the computer is still under its early developmental stages. For now, Prakash et al have plans to set up a new category of computers that can control and manipulate physical matter.

“We already have digital computers to process information. Our goal is not to compete with electronic computers or to operate word processors on this. Our goal is to build a completely new class of computers that can precisely control and manipulate physical matter. Imagine if when you run a set of computations that not only information is processed but physical matter is algorithmically manipulated as well. We have just made this possible at the mesoscale,” says Prakash

Synchronous computer is a combination of droplet fluid dynamic and fundamental element of computer science i.e. an operating clock. 

Prakash was already an expert in the world of droplet fluid dynamics and he combined this expertise with the fundamental element of computer science known as computer clock.

Since the time that Prakash was a graduate student, he had a burning desire to use the little drops as bits of information and then use their precise movement to process the information as well as use them as physical material. Over a period of time Prakash decided to build a rotating magnetic field which would act as a clock to synchronize the droplets. Prakash then recruited a graduate student Georgios “Yorgos” Katsikis, who is the first author on the paper in this study followed by co-author Jim Cybulski.

Now, developing a clock for a fluid based computer required tremendous creative thinking. Besides being easily manipulative it also needed to be able to influence multiple droplets at a time. Further, the system required to be scalable so as to accommodate large number of droplets which could easily communicate with each other without missing a single beat. The trio then decided to make use of a magnetic field so as to meet all these requirements and this trick actually worked.

The synchronous computer is made up of ‘T’ and ‘I’ shaped pieces of metals which have been deployed in such a manner so as to alter the structure of a magnetic field that is generated by electromagnetic coils inside the computer. This arrangement acts like a magnetic clock which magnetizes the liquid droplets which can then be controlled so as to move them around in certain specific patterns just “like slot cars on a track.”

The liquid used in this experiment can be a mixture of different materials, in this case the researchers used iron particles. The synchronous computer of Stanford university can be used as a means to arrange or sort droplets of different chemicals as well.

Georgios “Yorgos” Katsikis, graduate student and first author on the paper said: “Following these rules, we’ve demonstrated that we can make all the universal logic gates used in electronics, simply by changing the layout of the bars on the chip. The actual design space in our platform is incredibly rich. Give us any Boolean logic circuit in the world, and we can build it with these little magnetic droplets moving around.”

For now the chips used in the synchronous computer is much smaller and about half the size of a postage stamp while the liquid droplets are smaller than the poppy seeds. As per Katsikis, the physics of the system suggests that it can be further made much smaller. Further the system is exceptionally scalable since magnetic field has been used to control the droplets.

Jim Cybulski says: “We can keep making it smaller and smaller so that it can do more operations per time, so that it can work with smaller droplet sizes and do more number of operations on a chip. That lends itself very well to a variety of applications.”

The details of the study that describes the water computer has been published in Nature Physics. The study gives all the technical details regarding the working of this innovative computer. The research team by using the above basic building blocks has also demonstrated a simple-state machine that includes a 1-bit memory storage which is known as ‘flip-flop’.

While speaking about the research Prakash said: “In this work, we finally demonstrate a synchronous, universal droplet logic and control.

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