Future computer chips could be made from honey

According to Washington State University (WSU) researchers, the future of neuromorphic computer chips could lie in…honey.

Scientists involved in the study claim this technology could pave the way for sustainable, biodegradable, and blazingly fast computers.

Honey is hardly the first thing that springs to mind when imagining a computer chip, but WSU engineers believe it could hold the key to making computers greener, while still being powerful enough to power a computer to mimic the human brain. This form of computing, which is used to simulate how the neurons in our brain work, is called neuromorphic.

While many of us may be impressed by how advanced computers are these days (let this new honey-based discovery be the proof), our own brains are far more impressive. Therefore neuromorphic computing is sometimes seen as the future of technology – because the human brain can still process, analyze and adapt to what it sees in ways a computer cannot. While computers can process massive amounts of data much faster than a human, we still have the upper hand when it comes to tackling problems creatively.

Neuromorphic computing aims to serve as a bridge between the human brain and technology, enabling autonomous systems that can simulate something close to human cognition. Such systems are said to be much faster and less power-hungry than even those best PCs currently available. Now it seems that honey could help make these futuristic devices much more sustainable for our planet.

A memristor is able to both process data and store it in memory, much like a human brain can.

WSU engineers managed to create a working memristor out of honey. A memristor is a transistor-like component and can both process and store data in memory, much like a human brain can. These devices are tiny – in the case of this study, the memristor was as wide as a human hair, but it needs to be made much smaller to serve its intended purpose in the future.

The target size will be around 1/1000th of a human hair, which means that these memristors have to be developed on a nanoscale. This is because millions, if not billions, of memristors are used to build a complete, working, high-performance neuromorphic computing system. For comparison, the human brain has over 100 billion neurons, or over 1,000 trillion synapses.

Feng Zhao, an associate professor in Washington State University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, co-authored the study with a graduate student, Brandon Sueoka. Zhao compared the honey-made memristor to a human neuron and explained that it has very similar functionalities while retaining a very small size.

CPU computer chip is inserted with tweezers.
Krystianna Wrocki/Getty Images

To achieve the desired effect, the scientists used real honey. They processed it into a solid form, which was then placed between two metal electrodes – a simulation of a human synapse. Through research, they discovered that the honey memristor successfully mimics how human synapses work. This was measured by the device’s ability to turn itself on and off quickly at a speed similar to that of the human brain – between 100 and 500 nanoseconds.

It definitely seems that honey memristors could show promise in terms of neuromorphic computing performance, but they have another obvious advantage – they are fully biodegradable. While the team has also explored the use of other organic materials, such as proteins and sugars, honey seems to be the winner so far.

“Honey doesn’t spoil. It has a very low moisture concentration, so bacteria cannot survive in it. That means these computer chips will be very stable and reliable for a very long time,” said Feng Zhao. “If we want to dispose of devices with computer chips made from honey, we can simply dissolve them in water. Because of these special properties, honey is very useful for creating renewable and biodegradable neuromorphic systems.”

The team published their findings in an issue of Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics. Of course, researchers still have a long way to go before they even come close to implementing this technology in a way that could be used by the entire industry. However, the first decisive steps have already been taken. The next time you add a spoonful of honey to your tea, consider that one day (in the distant future mind you) you might be using a computer running on that very substance.

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