A group of scientists and engineers at Brown University is planning to use chemicals in a droplet of fluid to store huge amounts of data and, eventually, get them to do complex calculations instantly.

They’ve just received US $4.1 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to get started, and plan to borrow robots and automation from the pharmaceutical industry to speed their progress.

“We’re hoping that at the end of this we’ll have a hard drive in a test tube,” says Jacob Rosenstein, assistant professor of electrical engineering, who is co-leading the project with theoretical chemist Brenda Rubenstein.

There’s been a big push recently to store data as molecules of DNA, but the Brown chemical computing project will do things differently, potentially ending up with greater data density and quicker readouts.

DNA data storage techniques encode the data as long chains of chemical “letters.” But in the Brown team’s scheme, each data point could be represented by its own chemical.

A simple version of that scheme using, say, the presence or absence of any of four chemicals, could then encode 16 states.

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