Dunking your laptop in a bucket of water while it’s running is just about the worst thing you can do to it. But researchers at Stanford University, led by assistant professor Manu Prakash, have developed a new type of computer processor that’s actually built around moving water drops, instead of electrons.
What’s especially interesting about this research is that this new kind of computer isn’t designed to replace the processor that’s currently powering your computer or mobile device. It can reproduce mathematical logic operations, but the researchers instead see their creation being used as an advanced way to control and manipulate physical matter.
Stanford’s computer is made up of a series of tiny T and I-shaped pieces of metal strategically arranged to affect the shape of a magnetic field generated by electromagnetic coils surrounding the machine. The tiny drops of liquid you see moving around actually have a similar make-up to the animated black goo you’ll find in a ferrofluid toy, which is how they can be manipulated and moved by a magnetic field.
Depending on how those tiny pieces of metal are arranged, the ferrofluid drops will move in a specific pattern. And since water droplets can actually be a mixture of different materials (in this case they’re full of tiny iron particles) this new type of computer could be used as a way to sort or arrange droplets of different chemicals. In other words, it’s best to think of it as a tiny factory, or even a kind of miniature 3D printer, that could one day be small enough to swallow and allow everything from custom medications to be produced on the fly, to even help repairing the human body.