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World's smallest computer can fit on the edge of a nickel

Amy Norcross


As part of the quest to give computing devices smaller, more efficient designs, University of Michigan researchers have spent over a decade working to develop what they believe is the world’s smallest complete computer, built on a cubic millimeter scale. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, which currently houses an exhibit focused on the Micro Mote, estimates that close to 150 of the computers could fit inside a single thimble.

World's smallest computer can fit on the edge of a nickel

University of Michigan faculty members David Blaauw, Dennis Sylvester, David Wentzloff, and Prabal Dutta, as well as several graduate students, have developed tiny computing units (on a millimeter scale) that are capable of harvesting solar power to utilize wireless communication, pressure and temperature sensors, and even still image and video processing.

“To be ‘complete,’ a computer system must have an input of data, the ability to process that data – meaning process and store it, make decisions about what to do next – and, ultimately, the ability to output the data,” says David Blaauw, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan. “The sensors are the input and the radios are the output. The other key to being a complete computer is the ability to supply its own power.”

The main impediment to creating such small devices is not shrinking the functioning parts but creating a power source. Professor Prabal Dutta, also a professor at the University of Michigan, told Sharp Europe blog Humans Invent, “If you look at a laptop or mobile phone, the battery dominates the volume of the device so we’ve had to spend a lot of effort on figuring out how to reduce the power needed for all the parts. You can’t plug these things in or recharge them because they are so small.”

Solar cells in the Michigan Micro Mote (M3) power the battery with ambient light – including indoors where no natural sunlight is present – in theory allowing the computers to run forever.

World's smallest computer can fit on the edge of a nickel

Each unit, part of a category of technology referred to as smart dust, is assembled in layers and is capable of being customized to a particular function. Because space was not available for a keyboard, mouse, or display, the research team had to develop a different way to communicate with the M3. The operator is able to send information to the computer by strobing light at a high frequency. Once the Micro Mote processes the data, it uses conventional radio frequencies to send the information to a central computer.

Ready for production now, the M3 is expected to see use in the medical field for monitoring human body processes, as well as conducting EKGs and detecting and monitoring tumor growth. Harkening back to scenes from the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage or 1987’s Innerspace, the M3 can actually be injected into the body to perform some of these functions.

Possible uses for the technology in environmental and energy management can be found in tracking power use for the smart grid, charting polar ice changes, detecting soil moisture, and even monitoring air and water quality. Other visions, according to CBS News, are that “people would buy a couple of M3s and stick the computers to their keys, wallet, and anything else they don't want to lose. And using a central system, people would be able to locate their belongings within the confines of their home.”

“Going forward there's no reason you can't keep pushing that, can't get to a hundred microns on a side,” says University of Michigan professor Dennis Sylvester. “And then you can get chips inside cells. It’s an easy thing to see as, you know, making science fiction a reality.”

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