European researchers design a rubber block that can count to ten

Physicist Lennard Kwakernaak finds the "complexity of simple things" intriguing, and it is a tough ask to make an inanimate object count.
Ameya Paleja
The metamaterial block that can count to 10
The metamaterial block that can count to 10

Leiden University 

A collaboration between researchers at Leiden University and AMOLF in Amsterdam has yielded a new metamaterial, a rubber block that can count. The researchers are calling it a Beam Counter and it is pretty nifty.

In a world where researchers are racing to make a quantum computer that can do complex math, building a new rubber block might not seem like much. But physicist Lennard Kwakernaak finds the "complexity of simple things" intriguing, and it is a tough ask to make an inanimate object count.

Scientifically speaking, the rubber block can be classified as a mechanical metamaterial. The term is used to define a material whose properties depend not just on its composition alone but also on its structure. Interestingly, the block does not need complex events like an increase in temperature to do its job.

How does the rubber block count?

The researchers have revealed a few prototypes of these rubber blocks, which seem pretty straightforward. The block that can count to 10 has 22 thick and thin beams. The thicker ones take external stimuli, such as pressure applied on the block, and use it to count the number of times it happens, using the thin beams.

Instead of using some complex electronic circuitry to display the count, the thin beams themselves change shape to demonstrate the count of events. The thin beam snaps from left to right to denote the count. One could simply compare the left and right positions to the '0' or a '1' in a binary computer system.

Researchers have ensured that the thinner beams do not snap back into their original position when pressure is applied. The block simply resets when it completes the count to ten and can be used to count again.

Where can the block be used?

"Counting is the simplest computation we could come up with, so that was a logical starting point," explained Kwakernaak in a press release. The team then went ahead and built a system where the block can differentiate between heavy and light pressures, which could potentially be used to denote ones and tens placed in the numbers and used to perform counting of larger numbers.

Now that we know how the block works, it definitely does not seem like a revolutionary invention that could change the world. However, as simple as it might come across, the physics behind it is quite complex and one that a computer can "barely simulate," Kwakernaak remarked.

The larger challenge before the researchers now is thinking of possible applications for such a metamaterial. Since the function of the metamaterial is not limited by a particular size, it can be shrunken to design a pedometer or expanded to count heavy vehicles driving over a bridge.

An additional advantage of using metamaterials is that they are cheap to make, robust in application, and require low maintenance. This is not the first occasion when a material has been discovered without a specific application in mind.

Making complex structures using metamaterial could also lead to more applications. If you can teach a rubber block to count, a simple computer is not that far off.

The research findings were published in the journal Physical Review Letters.


Materials with an irreversible response to cyclic driving exhibit an evolving internal state which, in principle, encodes information on the driving history. Here we realize irreversible metamaterials that count mechanical driving cycles and store the result into easily interpretable internal states. We extend these designs to aperiodic metamaterials that are sensitive to the order of different driving magnitudes and realize “lock and key” metamaterials that only reach a specific state for a given target driving sequence. Our metamaterials are robust, scalable, and extendable, give insight into the transient memories of complex media, and open new routes toward smart sensing, soft robotics, and mechanical information processing.

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