Home / Technology / Science fiction handwaving just got real with the world’s first biologically powered chip

Science fiction handwaving just got real with the world’s first biologically powered chip

Readers familiar with 3Jane, Moya, or Locutus of Borg may have wondered about the architectural implications of technology that bridges such disparate systems. How do you go from a biological organism, with its irregularity and its fluid bath, to the silicon paradigm? How does Moya initiate starburst? Researchers at Columbia Engineering have begun to articulate the link between electricity and biology, and their work has implications for medicine, sci-fi, and everything in between.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree to recognize the difficulty of interfacing computers with biological systems. To wit, I would like to briefly depart from a cool, professional tone to note the real-world implications of the above recent discovery by the good folks at Columbia. Some dudes built some tiny swatches of faux cell membrane studded with cell membrane pores from pig neurons that could take in ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and create a voltage gradient (just like a human nerve when it fires) and stacked them on top of one another like a capacitor’s layers. Then they epoxied that to the top of a CMOS chip, poured ATP in the top, and it made electricity and ran.

CMOS chip powered by ATP

The physical architecture of the ATP-powered chip

But this discovery doesn’t just tell us that you can make a computer part compatible with a biological system using epoxy, no matter how cyberpunk enthusiasts or future prosthetics recipients may rejoice. It goes much deeper, describing the way the membrane potential of a given cell relates to its electrochemical environment by way of a mathematical relationship you’ve probably never heard of, called the Goldman equation.

The Goldman equation relates membrane potential to ion concentrations

The Goldman equation

Suppose that you had a creature like Moya, a biomechanoid capable of starburst. Suppose further that starburst is an emergent phenomenon, based on the idea that an electromagnetic distortion of suitable character could warp spacetime in such a way as to allow Moya to “hop” across large distances in a small amount of time. Remember the hole Moya seems to dive through when she starbursts? If Moya is producing that electromagnetic disturbance volitionally, then it stands to reason that she might be using her nervous system to dive into the warp in spacetime. And if it’s the nerve cells that have this electrochemical relationship to their environment, and the Goldman equation relates the potential across a cell membrane to each permeant ion across that membrane, then you can set membrane potential to the necessary magnitude to induce the electromagnetic disturbance necessary for starburst, and you can begin to explore the electrochemical mechanics of starburst analytically.

How would the scaling work for such a system? Ohm’s Law provides a useful framework here. The researchers mentioned the capacitance, resistance, and physical dimensions of their system in the Nature article they published. Running those numbers through Ohm’s Law gives a required surface area of roughly a square kilometer per milliwatt, which is great for low-power bioelectrical systems like prosthetics or an implantable HUD — or a smaller version of this BME project – where you can use the compacting capabilities of thin films to make tiny capacitors providing enough juice to run a microimplant by siphoning off some of the body’s ATP.

But imagine how many square kilometers of voltage-generating membranous reticulum you could pack into those columns in Moya’s starburst chamber. Now add in the fact that since the researchers from Columbia used a voltage doubler, and Moya is a biomechanoid and therefore compatible with such technology. Starburst, QED.

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