A research team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst has created an electronic microsystem that can intelligently respond to input of information without external energy input, much like an autonomous living organism. The microsystem is built from a new type of electronics capable of processing ultra-weak electronic signals and incorporates a device capable of generating electricity “from scratch” from the ambient environment.
The groundbreaking research was published on June 7 in the journal Nature Communication.
Jun Yao, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and assistant professor of biomedical engineering, led the research with his longtime collaborator Derek R. Lovley, professor emeritus of microbiology.
The two key components of the microsystem are made from protein nanowires, a “green” electronic material that is produced in a renewable manner from microbes without producing “electronic waste”. Research heralds the potential for future green electronics made from sustainable biomaterials that are better able to interact with the human body and various environments.
This groundbreaking project produces an “autonomous intelligent microsystem,” according to the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Lab, which funds the research.
Tianda Fu, a graduate student from Yao’s group, is the lead author. “This is an exciting start to exploring the feasibility of incorporating ‘living’ functionality into electronics. I look forward to more advanced versions,” said Fu.
The project represents a continuous evolution of recent research by the team. Previously, the research team had discovered that electricity could be generated from the ambient environment / humidity with an air generator based on protein nanowires (or “Air-Gen”), a device which continuously produces electricity in almost every environment on Earth. The invention of Air-Gen has been reported in Nature in 2020.
Also in 2020, Yao’s lab reported in Nature Communication that protein nanowires can be used to build electronic devices called memristors that can mimic brain calculus and operate with ultra-low electrical signals that match the amplitudes of biological signals.
“Now we bring the two together,” Yao said of the creation. “We make microsystems in which Air-Gen electricity is used to drive sensors and circuits built from protein nanowire memristors. Now the microsystem can obtain energy from the environment to take supports detection and calculation without the need of an external power source (eg battery) .It has full energy autonomy and intelligence, just like the autonomy of a living organism.
The system is also made from an environmentally friendly biomaterial – protein nanowires harvested from bacteria. Yao and Lovley developed Air-Gen from the microbe Geobacter, discovered by Lovley many years ago, which was then used to create electricity from moisture in the air and later to build memristors capable of mimicking human intelligence.
“So, both functionally and materially,” Yao explains, “we make an electronic system more bio-similar or more alive”.
“The work demonstrates that we can build an autonomous intelligent microsystem,” said Albena Ivanisevic, biotronics program manager at the US Army’s Combat Capability Development Command Army Research Lab. “The UMass team demonstrated the use of artificial neurons in calculus. It is particularly interesting that the protein nanowire memristors exhibit stability in an aqueous environment and lend themselves to further functionalization. Further functionalization not only promises to increase their stability, but also to extend their usefulness for sensors and new communication methods of importance to the army.
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