Recently I sat next to electrical engineering assistant professor David Wentzloff at a dinner hosted by Provost Hanlon. I asked David to describe his current research interests.
“Really small computers.”
How small? One (1) cubic millimeter. (I wondered what to compare that to, for perspective, and went searching for a Number 2 pencil. Its eraser is about half a centimeter long and wide. So, five of these little computers should fit across a standard pencil eraser.) David told me that if you put the electronic device on your finger, a person sitting across the table might have a difficult time seeing it.
It turns out that David and his research team—U-M professors Dennis Sylvester, David Blaauw and Prabal Dutta, along with former U-M postdoc Thomas Schmid of Utah—have a $2.5 million, 5-year NSF grant to create 100 of the world’s smallest computers. It’s never been done at this scale before. They’ll give the tiny devices away, along with a software development suite, to researchers and others who are interested in how miniature wireless computing might change their scientific work—and our lives.
It all started with “insanely low-power processors,” David told me. Professors Sylvester and Blaauw had been working on computer processors that were 100 times lower powered than anything produced previously. The question then became: What can you put around a computer processor that needs such a small amount of power to operate?
Well, inside a package measuring 2mm x 1 mm x .5 mm, the research team has now assembled:
- a radio with integrated antennas
- a battery
- enough memory to run software programs as well as store data
- two processors: 1 general purpose and 1 dedicated to power management (such as effectively using solar energy)
- an imager (the equivalent of a 96 x96-pixel camera)
- a solar cell
- a temperature sensor
And all of it at this tiny scale. In fact, David said one of the real challenges of the project has been to downsize all those component parts to match the scale of the processor itself. “The rules as we know them seem to apply at about a centimeter in size, but we’re in entirely new territory at the millimeter level. It’s revolutionary,” he said.
Even more astonishing than the groundbreaking size itself, though, is the potential for application. Everywhere. The research team has talked with scientists who can imagine using the electronics to measure growth of tissue, pressure in the eyes of glaucoma patients and other medical applications. But for me, one of the most interesting aspects of the research is the great unknown of possibilities. As David put it:
“We want researchers to imagine applications far beyond anything our team could ever dream up.”
Really big stuff. David introduced me to the term “internet of things,” referring to the day—coming soon—when more and more everyday objects are embedded with sensors and an ability to communicate. We talked about a future of this sort of ubiquitous computing, wirelessly enabled infrastructure that is nearly invisible but constantly measuring, storing and transmitting data. It will mean new business models, new commercial applications, new ways of solving old problems.
And it begins with electronic components at a miniature scale.
The prototype for the world’s smallest computer should be ready this summer, right here on North Campus.
Posted in Campus News |