On 14 February, researchers from the UG and the Czech Academy of Sciences, in association with the Municipality of Westerkwartier, laid a Piezo tile connected to a prototype of a new low-energy computer close to Zuidhorn railway station. This so-called neuromorphic computer was inspired by the working of the human brain. The tile registers passengers passing by and the computer analyses the data.
The tile contains Piezoelectric crystals. A current occurs in the crystals when the tile is deformed. Piezo crystals are responsible for the spark in many gas lighters: pressing the button deforms the crystal, causing an electrical current and then a spark. The Nanostructures of Functional Oxides research group, headed by UG Professor Beatriz Noheda, developed the Piezo materials used in the tile at Zuidhorn station. When passers-by walk across the tile, they put pressure on the material and this generates electricity. The electricity causes a light to flash but also serves as input for the neuromorphic computer connected to the tile. The computer is powered by a solar panel
Neuromorphic computers were inspired by the working of the human brain. The brain needs just under 20 watts to work, while a computer uses 80 kilowatts to make the same computations. As computers use some 10% of the total amount of energy generated in the world, improving their efficiency would lead to huge savings.
Researchers from the fields of mathematics, physics, materials science and artificial intelligence are working together at the UG CogniGron research centre to develop low-energy computers. Their research focuses on developing new materials that can process information in a way that resembles the working of nerve cells in the human brain, which will ultimately need less energy.
Scientific coordinator of CogniGron, Jasper van der Velde, sees potential in the prototype that is currently being tested in Zuidhorn: ‘Various other research groups, including those of Beatriz Noheda, Tamalika Banerjee and Maria Loi, have developed some very promising new materials that can be used in the computer. We hope that updating the prototype will improve its efficiency.’
Alderman Hielke Westra is responsible for innovation and sustainability in the municipality of Westerkwartier: ‘It can get very busy in the area around the station, so it’s useful for us to know where people are walking. We can put this data to good use.’ But this partnership with the UG is not the only sustainable initiative being undertaken by the Municipality of Westerkwartier. Westra: ‘The underground waste containers are another good example. They use energy but it takes a lot of time and money to connect them to the grid. Some of them have now been made self-sufficient by fitting a solar panel and a battery, which means that they don’t need to be connected to the grid anymore.’
Close collaboration between the UG and the Municipality of Westerkwartier enabled the development of the Piezo tile and the neuromorphic computer. The collaboration is a prime example of how academia can work together with society. The data generated by pedestrians walking to and from Zuidhorn station is helping research at the UG, and the Municipality of Westerkwartier is showing the public the type of academic research that is being carried out at the University.
Noheda thinks that this collaboration is important: ‘Research like this allows us to show people what we are doing step by step. We have a long-term vision for both the tile and the computer. Major progress in research can take decades and society is left pretty much in the dark about what is going on. Testing prototypes in the middle of town allows people to see the intermediate steps as well as the final result and helps to engage them in what we are doing.’
A board with information about neuromorphic computers and the CogniGron research institute has been placed next to the Piezo tile and the computer. The board is an addition to the Zuidhorn Energy Path that opened last year. The path comprises a series of information boards, mainly intended to teach pupils at the local school about sustainable energy. There is also a webpage showing live data from the Piezo tile. The data includes graphs showing the number of steps on the tile and the amount of energy supplied by the solar panel. It is also possible to download the raw data from the last few days and make your own graphs.
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