A microprocessor that runs on air

CIOL Bureau
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BANGALORE, INDIA: Every other day we hear about one revolution or the other in the chip front. However, this one is much different from all other. Because the computers with these strange chips run calculations on nothing more than air.


Two scientists at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor recently claimed that they have developed pneumatic logic circuits and microprocessors built with microfluidic channels and valves in polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS).

The pneumatic logic circuits perform various combinational and sequential logic calculations with binary pneumatic signals (atmosphere and vacuum), producing 'cascadable' outputs based on Boolean operations, said Minsoung Rhee and Mark A. Burns in a recent article in Lab Chip.

“A complex microprocessor is constructed from combinations of various logic circuits and receives pneumatically encoded serial commands at a single input line, the said.


According to the scientists, “the device then decodes the temporal command sequence by spatial parallelization, computes necessary logic calculations between parallelized command bits, stores command information for signal transportation and maintenance, and finally executes the command for the target devices.”

Thus, such pneumatic microprocessors would function as a universal on-chip control platform to perform complex parallel operations for large-scale integrated microfluidic devices, the scientists claimed.

To demonstrate the working principles the duo has built 2-bit, 3-bit, 4-bit, and 8-bit microprocessors to control various target devices for applications such as four color dye mixing, and multiplexed channel fluidic control.


The complicated nest of channels and valves made by Minsoung Rhee and Mark Burns processes binary signals by sucking air out of tubes to represent a 0, or letting it back in to represent a 1, said the New Scientist. A chain of such 1s and 0s flows through the processor's channels, with pneumatic valves controlling the flow of the signals between channels.

The pneumatic valve is operated by changing the air pressure in a small chamber below the air channel, separated from the circuit by a flexible impermeable membrane. When the lower chamber is filled with air the membrane pushes upwards and closes the valve, preventing the binary signal flowing across one of the processor's junctions.

Sucking out the air from the chamber reopens the valve by forcing the membrane downwards, letting the signal move across the junction.

Though the device is unlikely to have applications beyond its use in microfluidics, it is sen as a good development that could lead to useful microfluidic devices for developing countries.