Researchers at the University of Michigan have created a computer so tiny, it’s dwarfed by a single grain of dust. The device, measuring just 0.3mm on a side, doesn’t just strain our eyes — it strains our definition of what a computer is. Expect a lot more devices like this to arrive in the coming years as the benefits and capabilities of the IoT become more apparent.
The Michigan research team dubbed their new device the Michigan Micro Mote. It lacks any kind of memory storage system and must be constantly exposed to sunlight or an equivalent energy source. It can’t use a battery — there aren’t any small enough to work with it — and the scale of the device means it can’t accept much power, either. It runs on nano-amps of power, a million times less energy than your typical idling smartphone.
The resulting device is capable of measuring the temperature of its surrounding area and is small enough to fit into nooks and crannies that aren’t normally accessible to thermal sensors. There’s even talk of using it to measure the temperature of tumors inside the body. Knowing how temperatures are different in tumors could aid detection methods or further treatments at some point down the line, and the Michigan Micro Mote is biocompatible and small enough to function as part of an internal system.
“There’s interest in understanding how the metabolism of tumors change as they’re being treated,” David Blaauw, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UM Blaauw, said. “The thought is that if you have some tumor tissue as it becomes malignant or as it’s being treated with chemotherapy, that its temperature characteristics change.
“That would be interesting, that’s not really known at this point,” he added. “That could help for diagnosis at some point down the road. To be able to measure that precisely in a small amount of tissue you would need an extremely small sensor.”
Obviously, power considerations would need to be addressed — the prototype device is solar-powered, but this wouldn’t work for any implanted product. But this type of sensor development could have significant ramifications for the IoT. Some of the most exciting work in computing these days is being done at the micro-scale and is focused less on improving raw compute power and more on extending that computational efficiency into areas it’s never touched. Biocompatible temperature sensors smaller than a grain of rice could extend our knowledge enormously one day, thanks to pioneering work in the field like this.
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