Computing with molecules
Existing digital technology is running into its limitations. Albert Wong is working on a groundbreaking alternative to the computer: he is letting molecules do the computing.
For years, Wong has been driven by the question of how life works. To answer it, the chemist returns to the network at the tiniest level. “In the past, I have investigated from a chemistry perspective how a living cell works, and how it might come into being. I want to continue this research and try to find the answer to the question: How can a cell compute?”
Molecules tend to interact with each other. They form networks by working together and competing. They are essentially ‘pre-programmed’ for networked computation, as used in artificial intelligence. That property might be interesting for a new application, Wong thinks. “Suppose we can efficiently store information in molecules. Could future computers then work based on natural technology rather than on digital technology? In other words, will computers soon be able to compute based on chemical reactions of molecules?”
Wong is building networks of molecules from scratch in a so-called flow reactor, which keeps the system out of equilibrium and induces controlled reactions in molecules. “Can you create living networks at the nanoscale in that way? Could it be that: the more random the basic conditions are, with all kinds of different mixtures of molecules, the more likely it is that a network can be created?”
His PhD research previously showed that outside of a so-called thermodynamic equilibrium, simple chemical reactions form the basis for complex networks within a living cell, for example. Wong then looked for the chemical origins of life and for new possibilities for storing information and computing with molecules. “Molecules do something different from electrons, which we now use for computing.”
The ‘natural’ way of computing may be the answer to the social challenges of our time. After all, existing digital technology is running to its limits. The storage and processing of data require huge amounts of energy. Digital networks are a popular target for cybercriminals. A shortage of raw materials for chips is also looming.
These drawbacks hardly apply for the use of molecules, says Wong. “Significantly less energy is required for data storage and processing. Decrypting information becomes more difficult. Moreover, chips would soon no longer need to be made from a scarce raw material such as silicon, but from recyclable molecules.”
Wong's current research in Twente, for which he has received a Veni grant, is inspired by the work of Alan Turing. This legendary mathematician built a decoding device in 1940 that was at the cradle of the computer age. Just before his death, Turing published his findings on ‘living’ computing power. That is, computing power based on molecules and their ability to create different reaction and diffusion paths. “This theory, which he was never able to elaborate, is the starting point of my research.”
Wong expects to arrive just in Twente with the alternative way of computing. “There is a lot of knowledge in the field of nanotechnology within this university. We need that to build scalable and modular networks for this new technology.”
When Albert Wong teaches first-year students, he likes to keep it practical. Students are given assignments that are doable at home. “Chemical reaction networks can already be constructed using an apple and a banana.” In addition, Wong teaches nanochemistry to third-year students and the Physical Organic Chemistry course to master's students. “In my teaching activities, I use the lab to solve complex problems. It starts with making something fun at home. Then it becomes more theoretical, and we start making connections with nanochemistry. In the third stage, you learn what is needed in the lab. I see it as a responsibility for researchers to get students excited about science and make them aware of its significance for society.”
Albert Wong received his master’s degree in Chemistry from Radboud University in Nijmegen in 2013, where he graduated cum laude four years later with a PhD in Physical Organic Chemistry. He received the Backer-KNCV Prize and the IMM Best Thesis Award for this thesis.
Wong worked for three years as a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University in the United States and has been an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Twente since 2020. His research group is embedded in the Molecules and Materials Department within the Faculty of Science & Technology.
Wong is awarded a Veni grant for research on novel molecular computing strategies to predict dynamics in complex systems. Wong is also part of The Centre for Brain-Inspired Nano Systems (BRAINS), which aims to develop efficient hardware for information processing.
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