Y-Prize 2021-2022: New Memory and Steerable Needle

Each year, Penn Engineering, The Mack Institute at the Wharton School, The Penn Venture Lab, and the Penn Center for Innovation host the Y-Prize competition. Starting with technologies developed by Penn Engineering researchers, contests are charged with finding significant real-world applications and building business plans around them.

This year’s technologies are “New Memory,”  a device for more efficient computing, and “Steerable Needle,” a needle with a flexible tip that can change directions as users target specific locations in soft material.

Teams enter the competition by pitching a real-world problem and product based on the capabilities of one of these technologies. One winning team will receive $10,000 to kick start the development of their prototype and help get their ideas to the market. For example, last year’s Y-Prize winners, LiberTech, used the highly selective membrane filtration technology developed by Chinedum Osuji, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,  lab to remove alcohol from wine and beer.

For more information about the Y-Prize competition, join the kickoff meeting on November 1st to learn more about the technologies.

New Memory

The first technology for this year’s competition is “New Memory,” a low-power, high-performance computer memory device that stacks directly on top of a computer’s microprocessor. This technology was developed by Deep Jariwala, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Systems Engineering and aims to reduce the amount of energy required in computing.

Traditionally, a computer’s memory “short term” memory storage system, RAM, is separated physically from its central processing unit (CPU), due to the way a computer is manufactured and the damaging heat produced by these systems. However, this separation causes a “memory bottleneck” and slows the processing time of the computer, making it energetically inefficient and expensive.

To address this bottleneck as the world’s demand for increased computer continues, Jariwala and his colleagues have created a RAM memory device  that can be placed directly on top of the CPU without overheating. The materials of the RAM that make this possible are a combination of ferroelectric metals coated in a thin semi-conductor that protects is from frying.

This technology results in an energy reduction a hundred times that of similar devices currently on the market. The technology has multiple applications such as mobile and battery-operated devices. Additionally, one CPU could have multiple New Memory RAM devices stacked on top of it, changing the entire 3D structure of computer processors. Y-Prize teams are encouraged to use this technology to solve real-world problems in computing across countless applications.


Steerable Needle

The second technology for this year’s Y-Prize participants is the “Steerable Needle,” a flexible needle simple enough to be manipulated by humans to pinpoint specific areas of soft material such as flesh or mud.


This technology was developed by Mark Yim, Asa Whitney Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, and colleagues. While some flexible needles already have some ability to be steered, their current levels of rigidity and complexity require robotic control. Those needles are not well-suited for delicate medical tasks as their lack of maneuverability can cause damage to flesh.

Yim’s steerable needle is designed with a material that acts like a tape measure; extremely flexible and able to bend at sharp angles when pressure is applied, but rigid enough to snap back straight when the pressure is removed. This design means that users can easily steer the the needle by pulling a trigger that folds the tip to the left or right, allowing the  rest of the needle to follow. The needles themselves are inexpensive to produce and manual steering eliminates the need for robotic control, allowing applications to extend to a variety of fields.

While the medical applications are the clearest for this technology, Yim suggest other real-world challenges such as search and rescue missions, environmental management and construction and Y-Prize participants are encouraged to think creatively about the products they can create with this technology.