10-06 winged microchips

[Image above] Tiny winged microchips inspired by free-falling winged seeds could enable future environmental monitoring systems. Credit: NorthwesternU, YouTube

Even though I can hardly believe there are only three more months of 2021, I’m excited that we’re entering my favorite time of year with cooler weather, apple cider, and pumpkin treats galore.

Leaves changing color is another highlight of autumn, and planning trips to see the fall foliage is a great way to spend an afternoon. Yet as you watch the colorful leaves swirl to the ground, you may soon find another item floating on the wind if new research by an international team of researchers comes to fruition.

The Northwestern University-led team of researchers detailed in a recent Nature article how they used computational modeling to develop winged microchips that could form the basis of future environmental monitoring systems.

The microchips are tiny—only as big as a grain of sand—and consist of two parts:

  1. A millimeter-sized electronic functional component, and
  2. A wing structure integrated with the electronic chip, which forms a shape similar to a helicopter.

In a video on the research, John Rogers, Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern, explains how the microchip design was inspired by free-falling winged seeds, such as the maple tree’s samara.

“As these structures fall through the air, interaction between the air and those wings cause a rotational motion that creates a very stable, slow falling velocity that allows these structures to interact for extended periods with ambient wind that really enhances the dispersal process, much like seeds do in the biological world,” he says.

The researchers imagine that large numbers of the winged microchips could be dropped from a plane or building, allowing for broad dispersal and monitoring of various environmental factors such as water quality, sun exposure at different wavelengths, and particulate matter in the air.

Of course, trying to collect such tiny devices after deployment would be extremely difficult. Fortunately, Roger’s lab already develops transient electronics that can dissolve in water after they are no longer needed. The team is using the same materials and techniques to build the winged microchips so they will naturally degrade and disappear in ground water over time.

Learn more about the winged microchips and see how they fall in the video below.

Credit: NorthwesternU, YouTube