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Lost Tech: 5D "Blood"


Though you might take them for granted, the phone in your pocket & the laptop in your backpack are marvels of human ingenuity. These feats of engineering feature billions of transistors (the things that give 1s & 0s) that process your YouTube feed, Tik Tok videos and Instagram DMs instantaneously, and it's all done in an area of a fingernail. But how could engineers cram so many electronics into a space that small? Six years ago, IBM researchers invented a technology that could have changed the paradigm of computer technology forever.


Firstly, a basic rundown of how computers work: A computer can execute tasks by operating with a series of binary (yes or no) operations. At the lowest level, these are represented by fluctuations in electric current, which are regulated through transistors. If more transistors could be crammed onto a chip, more operations would be processed simultaneously. The result? Faster computers. However, it is incredibly difficult to cram more and more digital functionality into a finite volume of space.


What IBM proposed to solve this density issue was to stack chips onto one another. Sounds simple, right? Not quite. At the time, technology didn't allow for complex stacks of chips due to two problems: heat & power. You can think of it like this: when you exercise, your body sweats to regulate temperature. If you couldn't sweat, you'd be a lot hotter; and if you couldn't drink water, you'd collapse. Same logic for computer chips. If you can't access the bottom chip, it will overheat and die; not to mention the logistical issue of powering the chips themselves.


To combat this, IBM's scientists turned to nature: if animals use blood for cooling and power delivery, why not computers?


Enter the quest for 5D blood. It sounds much more classy than reality. Basically, three of the dimensions are for the physical chip, the other goes for power and cooling. The idea was that, if chips could be powered and cooled by a fluid, multiple chips could be piled up.


This '5D blood' came to life after extensive research in microfluidics and liquid cooling (nerd stuff). Remember, it needed to be capable of generating electricity and recharging through sophisticated chemical reactions. Through a series of pumps, tubes, bottles and a bunch of very "sciency" stuff, they actually managed to create a functional computer chip.


Despite the great concept, the design was not quite practical—experiencing several reliability limitations and sensitive operating conditions (honestly, just look at it), so it never left the test bench.


Modern manufacturing technologies go on toiling for smaller and more efficient transistors. Though it seemed like a brilliant idea to emulate the biological levels of efficiency of the human brain, 5D blood was a crass oversimplification. Nonetheless, this tech is an awesome case of "what could have been". We often turn to nature to get inspiration, so if animals use blood for both energy delivery and cooling of the most efficient computers in the world, so why shouldn't IBM?


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