Skip to Content
Uncategorized

First Hot Ice Computer Created

A computer made entirely of sodium acetate, known as hot ice, solves mazes and other problems. It also occasionally hangs.

If you’ve ever used a chemical hand warmer, you’ll be familiar with sodium acetate. These bags of liquid are supersaturated solutions of sodium acetate that has supercooled to ambient temperature. Clicking a metal disc in the solution creates a nucleation center that causes the solution to rapidly crystallize, releasing heat. Heating the solid turns it back into a liquid, thereby recharging the hand warmer.

There’s no end of fun to be had with these devices, and now Andrew Adamatzky from the University of the West of England in Bristol has added a new trick to the repertoire: Adamatzky has built a computer entirely out of sodium acetate.

The basic idea is to exploit the traveling wavefront of crystallization to perform calculations, rather in the manner of reaction-diffusion computers and the slime mold computer he has also toyed around with. So the speed of the wavefront as it moves through a petri dish and the way it interacts with other wavefronts effectively performs computations.

Adamatzky inputs data by triggering nucleation at multiple points in parallel by immersing aluminum wires powdered with sodium acetate into a supersaturated solution in a petri dish. He “processes” the wavefronts using blobs of silicone to steer them around the dishes and has used the technique to create AND and OR gates.

The results of a computation are determined by recording the movement of the wavefronts and analyzing the edges of the resulting crystal structures.

Adamatazky’s hot ice computer has so far solved several mazes and a number of other computing problems. He has kindly posted some cool videos of his computer here.

But the computer is far from perfect, he says. Following the wavefronts is by no means easy and occasionally results in no solution or circular ones. In other words, the hot ice computer occasionally hangs, resulting in the hot ice equivalent of the BSOD. It’s probably more realistic than even he bargained for.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0908.4426: Hot Ice Computer

Keep Reading

Most Popular

It’s time to retire the term “user”

The proliferation of AI means we need a new word.

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Sam Altman says helpful agents are poised to become AI’s killer function

Open AI’s CEO says we won’t need new hardware or lots more training data to get there.

An AI startup made a hyperrealistic deepfake of me that’s so good it’s scary

Synthesia's new technology is impressive but raises big questions about a world where we increasingly can’t tell what’s real.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.