World’s Smallest Chip is Invisible to the Naked Eye

Have you heard of Moore’s law? It’s a prediction that has held true since 1975 when Gordon Moore predicted that the number of transistors on microchips would double every two years as technology advances. This empirical relationship has guided the semiconductor sector in long-term planning, research, and development for decades. As a result, it has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it has been behind some of the most groundbreaking changes in digital electronics.

Today, Moore’s law still holds, and our electronic systems get smaller every day. And with the size reduction comes the advancement of sustainability and accessibility.

Now we’re looking at one more invention that has benefitted from the ever-reducing size of our technology. This never-before-seen advancement comes to us in the form of a single chip that is so small it can sit on the head of a hypodermic needle and is invisible to the naked eye.

A Closer Look

Schematic representation of the device.

Schematic representation of the device.

Engineers at the Columbia University have created what they say is the world’s smallest functioning chip. This single-chip system consumes less than 0.1 mm3 total volume, making it as small as a dust mite. It is only visible under a microscope, and it uses ultrasound technology for communication and power. This chip is designed to monitor bodily functions like temperature and oxygen levels. In addition, this record-breaking chip can be injected into human bodies with a simple procedure using a hypodermic needle.

“We wanted to see how far we could push the limits on how small a functioning chip we could make,” said Professor Ken Shepard, the leader of this study. “This is a new idea of ‘chip as system’—this is a chip that alone, with nothing else, is a complete functioning electronic system. This should be revolutionary for developing wireless, miniaturized implantable medical devices that can sense different things, be used in clinical applications, and eventually approved for human use.”

It was no easy task to design and fabricate chips of such small size without sacrificing efficacy. The design was created by doctoral student Chen Shi, who is listed as the study’s first author. Shi’s design is so small that traditional radio frequencies use wavelengths that are too large for the relative size of the chip. However, ultrasound wavelengths are much smaller at the required frequency, and they’re a perfect candidate for the chip. Ultrasound both powers and communicates with the device wirelessly via a piezoelectric transducer that acts as an antenna.

The chip was injected into live mice via intramuscular injections and was tested successfully. It was able to monitor the temperature of the mice’s bodies and transmit the information to the receiver.

Future Implications

Scientists believe that these chips could assist in diagnosing and monitoring not just body temperature but also vitals like blood pressure, glucose levels, and respiration in real-time.

The single-chip device is a complete system with capabilities that offer far-reaching potential. Scientists can further improve it for developing advanced wireless implants for use as medical devices for various purposes. But first, we must await the eventual approval for safely implanting this chip in humans.

Needless to say, the potential these tiny chips hold could well pave the way for several groundbreaking medical feats.

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