Published: Feb. 18, 2021 By

An interdisciplinary team of researchers in the college is working to develop materials to enable the next generation of computing. If successful, the boundary between materials and computers may disappear altogether in the near future. 

Organized through the Multi-Functional Materials Interdisciplinary Research Theme, the project centers around the field of unconventional computing. Traditional mechanical computing is based on software and hardware with a distinct barrier between the two. It consists of designing an algorithm in a common programming language that instructs the computer in precisely what it should do. The computer then runs that on hardware such as a PC or smartphone to perform the intended function. While these kinds of systems have worked for decades, the processes are starting to reach their fundamental limits in terms of speed and power consumption.

Unconventional computing researchers are addressing those limits by re-envisioning the fundamental concept of computation. They are starting to explore computing alternatives that are based on other types of materials and or chemical and biological systems that do not have the same barriers between hardware and software.

Biological systems, for example, can be modelled computationally and can be considered to be performing computation themselves in a way wholly different from what traditional methods can produce. A related project already underway in the college is exploring ways to use organic materials for computational hardware. This would allow for the creation of tiny biodegradable organic computers that could live in the soil and help record agricultural measurements.

These kinds of new unconventional computing approaches could also further enable artificial intelligence and neural networks, shrink computer sizes and have big implications for quantum systems, among many other applications.

Assistant Professor Robert MacCurdy said the effort will specifically explore new directions in the materials, devices, fabrication methods, architectures, and algorithms for future computing technologies. 

“Our efforts will focus on demonstrating the fabrication of polymer-based computational devices and circuits with 2.5D and 3D fabrication methods, including screen-printing, plotting, blade coating and multi-material 3D printing,” he said. “Our emphasis will be on methods that are fast, scalable, and readily enable many processing steps to be automated.”

Associate Professor Gregory Whiting’s research is focused at the intersection of additive manufacturing, novel materials and functional devices. He is working with Professor Robert McLeod on the biodegradable sensor project. He said this kind of project draws from the innovative research in those areas across the college. 

“The campus and broader Boulder community also boasts a cluster of expertise in these areas, making it a rich field for collaboration,” he said. 

Research theme director Nikolaus Correll said an overarching goal of the initiative is to explore possible ways to integrate materials and computing, creating novel collaborations along the way.

“This seed grant is an opportunity to coalesce these kinds of lessons and possibly create a new paradigm for highly functional material systems," he said. 

The CU Boulder faculty involved with this project are Assistant Professor Robert MacCurdy and Associate Professor Gregory Whiting from the Paul M. Rady Department of Mechanical Engineering, Professor Robert McLeod and Associate Professor Sean Shaheen from the Department of Electrical, Computer & Energy Engineering, and Professor Timothy White from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.