Human brain inspires use of "electronic blood" in IBM computers

Credit: IBM

If you think about it, the human brain is a magical thing. It's capable of computing complicated algorithms on only 20 watts of energy, making it a computationally powerful and compact natural creation that is 10,000 times more dense and efficient than a computer. That natural efficiency has inspired IBM to create a computer fueled on liquid energy, or "electronic blood" that has the ability to carry power in and take heat out — much like the human circulatory system already does.

The newest "Aquasar" computer prototype uses a "redox flow" liquid pumping system that resembles tiny water pipes snaking through the computer chips. Contradictorily, the pipes pump a warm water solution to cool off the chips that allows them to function without overheating.

The key is to find a multitasking liquid that can supply energy and cooling at the same time, just like human blood distributes blood sugar and cools off our bodies. First, electrodes are used to infuse liquid with electrolytes. The liquid is then pumped through the chips with the help of a battery-like "redox flow unit" made from vanadium, distributing and discharging energy to the computer chips.

By using this integrated liquid cooling technique, 3D layering of computer chips is also possible, since previous computer chip iterations required an open space to cool off. Layering of chips like a sandwich would normally lock in heat and lead to an overheated server, which was a hindrance to 3D computer chip architecture.

The result is a more compact, energy efficient computer with plenty of processing power that uses 40 percent less electricity, as tested when installed inside German supercomputer SuperMUC. IBM's goal is to create a one petaflop computer that would normally be half the size of a football field at desktop size by 2060.

The technology is far from practical use, as a whole separate unit is required to charge the liquid full of computation-ready energy. Still, the developers are confident that continued study of the human brain will eventually unlock the answers needed to produce an electronic blood-powered computer. One thing's for sure: they'll need all the brain power they can get for this one!


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