Immersing a laptop in water while it is running is a bad idea, but researchers from Stanford University have developed a type of computer processor that utilizes water droplets.
The researchers claim that the first water-operated computer can perform complex logical operations. It is not also intended to replace the conventional processor that currently powers computers and mobile devices. Instead, the researchers see the computer being used as an advanced means of controlling and manipulating physical matter.
The team behind the computer say that they do not aim to use the new computer to operate word processors or compete with electronic computers; they want to build a new class of computer with the ability to manipulate and control 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," said Manu Prakash, from Stanford University.
To make the device work, Prakash and colleagues set arrays of small iron bars on glass slides set up into something that looked like the maze in the game Pac-man. The researchers laid a black glass slide on top with a layer of oil sandwiched in between, then infused single water droplets with magnetic nanoparticles into the mix.
Prakash and his team then turned on the magnetic field. Whenever the field flips, the bars' polarity is reversed so the magnetized droplets get drawn into the predetermined direction. Each of the rotation of the field makes one clock cycle and each of the drop marches a step forward with every cycle.
The 1s and 0s of the binary code are represented by the presence or absence of a water droplet and the clock guarantees that the movement of the droplets are in perfect synchrony, so the system can run without errors.
The researchers said that an application for the technology involves using the computer as a biology and chemistry laboratory that, instead of running reactions in test tubes, uses droplets of water to carry chemicals and become its own test tube.
"Our platform uses a rotating magnetic field that enables parallel manipulation of arbitrary numbers of ferrofluid droplets on permalloy tracks," the researchers wrote in their study published in the journal Nature Physics on June 8. "Our platform enables large-scale integration of droplet logic, analogous to the scaling seen in digital electronics, and opens new avenues in mesoscale material processing."
Below is the video of Stanford University's water droplet-based computer: