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‘Green’ Intelligent Electronic Microsystem Acts Like Self-Autonomous Living Organism

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Image: UMass Amherst

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a new electronic microsystem that acts like a self-autonomous living organism by intelligently responding to information inputs without external energy input. The novel type of electronics responsible for the microsystem can process ultralow electronic signals and incorporate a device capable of generating electricity “out of thin air” from the ambient environment. 

The research was presented in Nature Communications on June 7. 

Protein Nanowires

Jun Yao, who led the research, is an assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and an adjunct professor in biomedical engineering. He was joined by Derek R. Lovely, a Distinguished Professor in microbiology. 

The microsystem consists of two key components made from protein nanowires, which are a “green” electronic material that is renewably produced. It doesn’t produce any “e-waste,” and the system is a blueprint for future green electronics made from sustainable biomaterials. 

According to the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory, responsible for funding the project, it is producing a “self-sustained microsystem.”

Tianda Fu is a graduate student in Yao’s group and lead author. 

“It’s an exciting start to explore the feasibility of incorporating ‘living’ features in electronics. I’m looking forward to further evolved versions,” Fu said. 

Previous Research

The team has already been working on similar research and projects, with the most recent involving the discovery that electricity can be generated from the ambient environment with a protein-nanowire-based Air Generator, which is a device that can continuously produce electricity in nearly all environments. 

That research was published back in 2020 in Nature.

Also in 2020, the team found that protein nanowires can be used to construct electronic devices called memristors, which can mimic brain computation and work with ultralow electrical signals that match the biological signal amplitudes. 

“Now we piece the two together,” Yao said. “We make microsystems in which the electricity from Air-Gen is used to drive sensors and circuits constructed from protein-nanowire memristors. Now the electronic microsystem can get energy from the environment to support sensing and computation without the need of an external energy source (e.g. battery). It has full energy self-sustainability and intelligence, just like the self-autonomy in a living organism.” 

The system is made from protein nanowires harvested from bacteria, meaning it is environmentally friendly. 

So, from both function and material, we are making an electronic system more bio-alike or living-alike,” Yao says. 

Albena Ivanisevic is the biotronics program manager at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Army Research Laboratory. 

“The work demonstrates that one can fabricate a self-sustained intelligent microsystem,” said Ivanisevic. “The team from UMass has demonstrated the use of artificial neurons in computation. It is particularly exciting that the protein nanowire memristors show stability in aqueous environment and are amenable to further functionalization. Additional functionalization not only promises to increase their stability but also expand their utility for sensor and novel communication modalities of importance to the Army.”

Alex McFarland is a tech writer who covers the latest developments in artificial intelligence. He has worked with AI startups and publications across the globe.