Living systems make simultaneous use of electrical, chemical, and mechanical domains for information processing, sensing, actuation, energy, and memory. While some of these behaviors have been mimicked in microelectronic systems, it is impossible for an electrical system to fully recreate the massive parallelism and emergent properties that come from the diversity of subtle molecular interactions and the coexistence of thousands of unique chemical compounds. Inspired by these possibilities, we have been pursing methods that combine active manipulation of chemical information with more established sensor technologies and CMOS microelectronics.
We recently introduced TruffleBot, a low cost platform for machine olfaction which “sniffs” in structured patterns and extracts diversity from the resulting sensor time series. TruffleBot can classify odors by taking advantage of the complex but non-random fluid mechanics governing its sensor air paths. This is one of several demonstrations in which we have applied supervised learning to explore the limits on chemical information retrieval from turbulent vapor plumes.
Additionally, building on recent progress towards molecular information systems (particularly using DNA) for ultra dense and low power data storage, we have been developing methods to write and read information in the form of diverse mixtures of small organic molecules. We have encoded numerous digital files into mixtures of natural metabolites as well as synthetic small molecule libraries.
We often approach these challenges from the perspective of electrical and computer engineers, and we hope that by treating chemical systems as abstract and mutable stores of information, we can uncover new ways to interact with the natural world.
Jacob K. Rosenstein is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island. He received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Columbia University in 2013. He previously worked as a systems engineer in the wireless division at Analog Devices and MediaTek, where he contributed to the SoftFone line of cellular baseband chipsets. At Brown, his current research interests are at the interfaces between electronics, chemicals, and information. His work has included low noise CMOS circuits for ion channels and nanopore DNA sensors; ultra low power oscillators and temperature sensors; signal processing for gas sensors and electronic noses; and systems for storing data in mixtures of small molecules.