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Scientist develop computer that operates on water droplets

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Water droplets computer
Physics   Manipulating water to get an operating clock

Computers and water don't mix, but Manu Prakash thinks differently. The assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, and his students have built a computer that operates using moving water droplets.

The computer is nearly a decade in the making, incubated from an idea that struck Prakash when he was a graduate student. The work combines his expertise in manipulating droplet fluid dynamics with a fundamental element of computer science - an operating clock.

"In this work, we finally demonstrate a synchronous, universal droplet logic and control," Prakash said.

Because of its universal nature, the droplet computer can theoretically perform any operation that a conventional electronic computer can crunch, although at significantly slower rates. Prakash and his colleagues, however, have a more ambitious application in mind.

"We already have digital computers to process information. Our goal is not to compete with electronic computers or to operate word processors on this," Prakash said.

"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."

The ability to precisely control droplets using fluidic computation could have a number of applications in high-throughput biology and chemistry, and possibly new applications in scalable digital manufacturing.

For nearly a decade since he was in graduate school, an idea has been nagging at Prakash: What if he could use little droplets as bits of information and utilize the precise movement of those drops to process both information and physical materials simultaneously.

Eventually, Prakash decided to build a rotating magnetic field that could act as clock to synchronize all the droplets. The idea showed promise, and in the early stages of the project, Prakash recruited a graduate student, Georgios "Yorgos" Katsikis, who is the first author on the paper.

Computer clocks are responsible for nearly every modern convenience. Smartphones, DVRs, airplanes, the internet - without a clock, none of these could operate without frequent and serious complications. Nearly every computer program requires several simultaneous operations, each conducted in a perfect step-by-step manner.

A clock makes sure that these operations start and stop at the same times, thus ensuring that the information synchronizes.

A clock for a fluid-based computer needed to be easy to manipulate, and also able to influence multiple droplets at a time. The system needed to be scalable so that in the future, a large number of droplets could communicate amongst each other without skipping a beat. Prakash realized that a rotating magnetic field might do the trick.

Katsikis and Prakash built arrays of tiny iron bars on glass slides that look something like a Pac-Man maze. They laid a blank glass slide on top and sandwiched a layer of oil in between. Then they carefully injected into the mix individual water droplets that had been infused with tiny magnetic nanoparticles.

Next, they turned on the magnetic field. Every time the field flips, the polarity of the bars reverses, drawing the magnetized droplets in a new, predetermined direction, like slot cars on a track. Every rotation of the field counts as one clock cycle, like a second hand making a full circle on a clock face, and every drop marches exactly one step forward with each cycle.

A camera records the interactions between individual droplets, allowing observation of computation as it occurs in real time. The presence or absence of a droplet represents the 1s and 0s of binary code, and the clock ensures that all the droplets move in perfect synchrony, and thus the system can run virtually forever without any errors.

"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," said Katsikis.

"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."


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