Scientists create algae computer powered by photosynthesis

Scientists have used algae to make a energy efficient computer chip for six months.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge sealed a colony of cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, in a metal case the size of an AA battery. The device was then left on a windowsill, according to new scientistwhere the algae photosynthesized and generated a small current of electricity that powered an ARM Cortex-M0+ chip.

The system is just a proof of concept, but the makers hope 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 smaller impact on the environment and can potentially provide continuous power.

“The growing Internet of Things needs more and more power, and we think this will have to come from systems that can generate energy, rather than simply store it like batteries,” said Professor Christopher Howe, co-senior author of the study. article. a press statement† “Our photosynthetic device doesn’t drain like a battery because it constantly uses light as a source of energy.”

The algae-powered ARM chip was used to perform very simple calculations, consuming a mere 0.3 microwatts per hour, reports new scientist† While the power consumption of normal computers varies based on factors such as workload and age, it is a fraction of the electricity needed to run an average PC. For example, if a normal desktop computer uses 100 watts per hour, you would need about 333,000,000 algae “batteries” to run it.

The researchers behind the project will of course need to scale up their solution, but they say the basic attributes of algae energy generation are encouraging. The algae they used didn’t require any nourishment, they say, getting all their energy needs from natural sunlight, and could continue to produce power at night from energy stored during the day.

“We were impressed with how consistently the system worked over a long period of time — we thought it would stop after a few weeks, but it just kept going,” said Dr. Paolo Bombelli, the lead author of the article, in a press statement.

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

While this process is extremely inefficient, as plants absorb only 0.25 percent of the energy from sunlight (compared to 20 percent absorbed in solar panels), proponents say biophotovoltaic energy systems can be cheap to produce and environmentally friendly. They envision that in the future, giant “lily pads” floating on water could be covered in algae to act as mobile power plants next to offshore wind farms.