Made the smallest microchip in the world capable of flying without motors

We hear so often about microchips, especially in the latter period. But do we really know what they are and where they are used? We have to admit, sadly, that this is a bit of an unfortunate time for microchips, for two main reasons. Not only are they the subject of countless fake news related to the vaccine. To all this is added the crisis that for some months has been holding the production of electronic components under siege . In short, in a particular historical period, here are the engineers of the Northwestern University of Chicago to revive the fortunes of microchips. In fact, in the US university, they have created the smallest microchip in the world .

The heart of digital electronics: the microchip

A microchip is nothing more than a very simple integrated circuit with very small dimensions. Very well, but what is an integrated circuit then, you may be wondering. In other words, it is an electronic circuit where the components that make it up are all entirely welded on the same "piece" of silicon. It is no coincidence that 'chip' means 'piece' in English. The microchips, therefore, are found inside any electronic device that we use every day , since digital electronics have been part of our daily life.

Microchip on electronic board. Smallest microchip in the world.
Typical microchip mounted on an electronic board.

The smallest microchip in the world is inspired by nature

The chip developed at Northwestern University, the size of a grain of sand , is inspired by maple seeds that are dispersed in the wind. The researchers' idea is to want to create a device capable of interacting with air for the longest possible time. The US engineers then replicated the aerodynamic model of the leaves which, floating in the air, manage to fall slowly and in a controlled way. This microchip, in fact, is the smallest in the world capable of flying and will be used to collect information on air quality . Of all the plant species existing in nature, however, one in particular has been identified.

The leaves of Tristellateia as a model

The leaves of Tristellateia australasiae , a climbing plant more widespread in tropical areas, seem to be the most suitable for the goal. The seeds of Tristellateia, in fact, have blade-shaped "wings", able to "trap" the wind . This guarantees them to rotate around themselves for as long as they are in the air thus assuming a very slow motion. To find the most ideal structure for the microchip, the researchers resorted to large-scale computational modeling . It is an innovative technique for modeling a geometric shape, which is based on the use of primitive entities to describe more complex shapes. By defining mathematical models that describe the motion of the Tristellateia, the researchers were able to give the right shape for their smallest microchip in the world.

Miniature electronics for the smallest microchip ever made in the world

The chip consists of two main parts: the electronic components and the wings. The electronics of the device, with its micrometric dimensions, includes sensors, a power source, a small internal memory and even an antenna. The sensors, of various kinds, will be used to monitor the air quality . In laboratory experiments, for example, the researchers measured the presence of particulates and the effects of exposing the chip to light for different wavelengths. The small power source is able to conserve the energy taken from the environment, while the antenna is used to communicate with other devices , such as PCs, smartphones and tablets. But this microchip, in addition to being the smallest flying device in the world, also has another incredible peculiarity.

The smallest microchip in the world made at Northwestern University in Chicago is even smaller than the tip of a pencil (right figure). On the left, however, you can see the model used by the researchers to obtain the shape reminiscent of the Tristellateia leaf. Credit: Northwestern University.
The microchip made at Northwestern University in Chicago is even smaller than the tip of a pencil (right figure). On the left, however, you can see the model used by the researchers to obtain the shape reminiscent of the Tristellateia leaf. Credit: Northwestern University.

The most… biodegradable microchip in the world

Since these devices have to interact with nature, their impact must be zero pollution. John A. Roger, one of the first authors of the study, also thought about this. Roger, a materials science professor and engineer at Northwestern, has always been involved in biocompatible electronics. The chip, in fact, uses materials that can decompose in contact with water .

"We manufacture such biodegradable electronic systems using degradable polymers, compostable conductors and dissolvable integrated circuit chips that naturally vanish into environmentally harmless end products when exposed to water."

John A. Roger, Northwestern University

Commented prof. Roger, who envisions a future where numerous flying devices, such as the world's smallest microchip developed at Northwestern University, communicate with each other. Most air monitoring technologies involve mass tools designed to collect data locally. The microchip developed by US engineers, on the other hand, paves the way for a new era of environmental monitoring. A large wireless network with millions of microscopic sensors could soon be built . Devices that can float in the air just like leaves and decompose like any other natural element.

The article Made the smallest microchip in the world capable of flying without motors comes from Tech CuE | Close-up Engineering .