Innovative mechanical computer uses kirigami cubes instead of electronics

Researchers have developed a kirigami-inspired mechanical computer that uses a complex structure of rigid, interconnected polymer cubes to store, retrieve and erase data without relying on electronic components. Credit: Yanbin Li/NC State University.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have created a groundbreaking mechanical computer inspired by kirigami, the art of cutting and folding paper.

This new system uses rigid, interconnected polymer cubes to store, retrieve, and erase data without any electronic components.

Remarkably, the system also allows users to control when data editing is permitted and when data should be locked in place.

Mechanical computers operate using physical components instead of electronic ones. Traditionally, these components included levers or gears.

However, the new mechanical computer from NC State uses structures that are multistable, meaning they can exist in more than one stable state, similar to objects that can be folded into different shapes.

Jie Yin, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State and co-corresponding author of the research paper, explains their goals: “We wanted to develop a stable mechanical system for storing data and to explore binary computing functions where a cube is either pushed up or down, representing a 1 or a 0.

We also see potential for more complex computing, where the height of the cube can represent additional data values.”

The fundamental units of this mechanical computer are 1-centimeter plastic cubes grouped into functional units of 64 interconnected cubes. Inspired by kirigami, the researchers cut and folded three-dimensional materials into connected cubes.

Pushing any of these cubes up or down changes the geometry of all connected cubes, either manually or using a magnetic field.

These 64-cube units can be combined into larger, more complex structures to store more data or perform more advanced computations. The cubes are connected by thin strips of elastic tape. To edit data, users pull on the edges of the structure, stretching the tape and allowing them to move the cubes.

Releasing the structure contracts the tape, locking the cubes—and the data—in place.

One exciting application of this technology is creating three-dimensional mechanical encryption or decryption.

According to Yanbin Li, the study’s first author, “A specific configuration of functional units could serve as a 3D password.”

The information density is impressive, with a simple structure of nine functional units offering over 362,000 possible configurations in a binary system.

Yin adds that they are not limited to binary coding. Each unit of 64 cubes can be configured in various ways, with cubes stacked up to five cubes high. This could lead to computing that goes beyond binary code.

While their current work demonstrates the potential range of these structures, they have not yet developed software to utilize these capabilities fully. They are open to collaborating with other researchers to explore the coding potential.

Additionally, the team is interested in the potential of these structures to create haptic systems that display information in a three-dimensional context, rather than as pixels on a screen.

This innovative approach to mechanical computing could revolutionize how we store and process data, making it more tangible and interactive.