What with text messaging, Twitter and Facebook, you might think that we had exhausted all the latest ways to communicate without speaking. Think again, because soon you might prefer to use an “infofuse”.
Infofuses are a bit like a multi-coloured version of Morse code. A message is encoded as a series of dots and dashes on a simple strip of paper. The dots and dashes are composed of three alkali metals – lithium, rubidium and caesium – each of which burns with a characteristic colour (see image). Once ignited, the flame creeps along the fuse and burns each dot in turn, generating a sequence of differently coloured lights.
In order to transmit messages using the system, George Whitesides at Harvard University and colleagues developed a code for the alphabet, numbers and four special characters (a full-stop, comma, exclamation mark and the “@” sign) based on the presence or absence of one of the three metals in each dot.
Message to mom
Extra coding information comes from the length of the dot, which determines the duration with which it burns, and the space between dots, where no colour is produced.
They placed dots of each metal on nitrocellulose paper using an ordinary ink-jet printer and ignited the strip. Using an optical detector to “read” the colours as the paper burned, they were able to transmit the message: “Look mom no electricity”.
The researchers say storing information in a chemical form is widespread in biology: in the way proteins are generated from the genome, for instance.
“This combination of information technology and chemistry provides unusual strategies for communication and data storage with the potential for important practical applications,” says John Rogers from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved with the study. “This bio-inspired idea of using molecules themselves as a form of information technology could lead to entirely new classes of devices,” he says.