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New Microprocessor Runs on Thin Air


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schematic of 8-bit air-powered processor

A schematic of the 8-bit air-powered processor.

Credit: Rhee / Burns / Royal Society Chemistry

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor researchers Minsoung Rhee and Mark Burns have developed a series of channels and valves that process binary signals by sucking air out of tubes to represent a 0, and filling tubes to represent a 1.

The processor's channels are composed of a chain of 1s and 0s, with pneumatic valves controlling the flow of signals between channels. The pneumatic valves are operated by changing the pressure in a small chamber below the air channel, separated from the circuit by a flexible and impermeable membrane. By filling the lower chamber, the membrane pushes upwards and closes the valve, preventing the binary signal from traveling through the junction. The researchers used these valve-controlled channels to create a variety of logic gates, flip-flops, and shift registers, which were connected to create a working 8-bit microprocessor.

Rhee and Burns say the air processor could help improve lab-on-a-chip devices, which have yet to be of significant use, partially because they generally require a large number of bulky and expensive off-chip components to control their operation. Using logic circuits could provide those controls, but because many microfluidic systems do not have electronic components, adding standard electronic valves would require new manufacturing processes. "Many microfluidic systems use pneumatic valves to control liquid flow, so adding the pneumatic control circuits should be relatively simple and inexpensive," Burns says.

From New Scientist
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