U Wisconsin Team Tinkers with 'NanoMechanical' Device

A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers wants to fuse the technology of modern computers and the mechanical calculators of the past to produce a machine that could survive in the harsh environments such as outer space, car engines, battlefields, and children's toys.

The device would use nano-scale mechanical moving parts to generate the switches, logic gates, and memory devices that drive the fundamental systems of computing, according to a UW-Madison announcement.

Robert Blick, a UW-Madison professor of electrical and computer engineering, said "the aim is to have a new type of device for computing applications."

Blick said the devices would have key advantages that could lead to specialized uses for all-mechanical nano-devices. They also would require less power to operate and could perform at much higher temperatures, eliminating the need for expensive cooling systems. Such  energy-efficient chips would hold potential for portable computers, as battery power limits laptop usage.

"That's one of our motivations," Blick said. "That's why we have this dream to attack the problem at the root."

Blick's group has already made a model of a working silicon mechanical transistor, and is now trying to build a circuit. "We've tested these single devices and we've shown that a single element works," he said. "The next step is to demonstrate memory. We're starting with the basics of information engineering."

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Paul McCloskey is contributing editor of Syllabus.

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