Scientists Create Photosynthesis-Powered Algae Computer

Scientists have used algae to power a low-power computer chip for six months.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge sealed a colony of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, inside a metal box the size of an AA battery. The unit was then left on a window sill, according to new scientist, where the algae carried out photosynthesis, generating a small current of electricity that powered an ARM Cortex-M0+ chip.

The system is just a proof of concept, but its creators hope the algae-powered chips could be used in future Internet of Things devices. They say the advantage of using algae over traditional batteries or solar power is that it has a lower environmental impact and could provide continuous power.

“The growing Internet of Things needs an ever-increasing amount of power, and we think it will have to come from systems that can generate power, rather than simply storing it as batteries,” Professor Christopher Howe, co-lead author of the study, said in a statement. Article. a press release. “Our photosynthetic device doesn’t run out like a battery does because it continually uses light as an energy source.”

The algae-powered ARM chip was used to perform very basic calculations, during which it consumed just 0.3 microwatts per hour, reports new scientist. Although the energy use of typical computers varies depending on factors such as workload and age, this is a small part of the electricity needed to run an average PC. If a typical desktop computer consumes, say, 100 watts of power per hour, it would need roughly 333,000,000 algae “batteries” to run it.

The researchers behind the project will obviously need to scale up their solution, but say the basic attributions of algae power generation are encouraging. The algae they used did not need to be fed, they say, gathering all their energy needs from natural sunlight, and could continue to produce energy at night based on energy stored during the day.

“We were impressed with how consistently the system worked over a long period of time; we thought it might stop after a few weeks, but it kept working,” Dr. Paolo Bombelli, the paper’s first author, said in a press release. .

While using algae in this way is definitely unusual, it’s also part of a growing area of ​​research known as “biophotovoltaics.” The goal of the field is to harness the energy generated by biological microorganisms that naturally convert light into electricity through photosynthesis.

Although this process is extremely inefficient, since plants absorb only 0.25 percent of the energy in sunlight (compared to 20 percent absorbed in solar panels), proponents say that biophotovoltaic energy systems they could be cheap to produce and environmentally friendly. They imagine that, in the future, giant “water lilies” floating on the water could be covered in algae to act as mobile power stations alongside offshore wind farms.

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