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Wearing Your Computer on Your Sleeve: NSF grant to explore “materials that compute”

PITTSBURGH  (September 23, 2013) … A computational "fabric" envisioned by University of Pittsburgh researchers could lead to the development of clothing that could respond to external stimuli, monitor vital signs of patients or athletes, and help the visually impaired "sense" their surrounding environment.

Anna BalazsSteve_Levitan
Anna C. Balazs, PhDSteven P. Levitan, PhD

The research, recently funded by a $700,000 National Science Foundation Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) grant build upon the already-established research of Principle Investigator  Anna C. Balazs, PhD , Distinguished Robert v. d. Luft Professor of Chemical Engineering, and  Steven P. Levitan, PhD , the John A. Jurenko Professor of Computer Engineering at Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering. The two are integrating Dr. Balazs' research into Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gel, a substance that oscillates in the absence of external stimuli, with Dr. Levitan's expertise in computational modeling and oscillator-based computing systems. 

"Although BZ gels have been investigated since the 1990s, this research moves in a new direction beyond logic operations - in essence creating materials that compute," Dr. Balazs explains. "The material would be an integrated sensing, computing and responsive device without an external power source that could act as a "sixth sense" for those who wear it."

Drs. Balazs and Levitan propose utilizing the chemo-responsive nature of the BZ gels to create a chemical-based computational fabric that would be lightweight and mechanically compliant, and would be human-centric, sensing and responding to human touch and motion. The material would perform autonomously for up to several hours without connections to an external power supply. 

The BZ reactions within the gels would perform information processing between sets of stored or learned patterns and stimuli in the form of light, pressure or chemistry. This ability for the material to interpret a stimulus, send out a signal and respond in kind will be a key part of the research. "In essence, we let the physics do the computing."

"The real leverage for this project is capitalizing on the gels' natural oscillation to communicate at a human scale that can sense the surrounding environment, process information and react to complex stimuli," Dr. Levitan adds. "The fabric would most likely require a piezoelectric film to generate an electric field, allowing it to interface with embedded electronics. 

The five-year grant will allow the researchers to further the computational modeling of how such a BZ gel fabric would function, with the goal that others would be able to fabricate the material. 

"Imagine this fabric helping a burn patient who has lost the sense of touch know whether he is in contact with a hot or cold material, or the fabric integrated into a jogging suit that can monitor and display your pulse, pressure and respiration," Dr. Balazs says. "By eliminating the need for external wiring or typical computer processors, this sensing fabric could help to change human quality of life." 

The NSF INSPIRE awards program was established to address some of the most complicated and pressing scientific problems that lie at the intersection of traditional disciplines. "Sensing and Computing with Oscillating Chemical Reactions" is jointly funded between the Division of materials research (DMR) in the Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) and the Division of Computing and Communication Foundations (CCF) in the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE).


Contact: Paul Kovach