Saturday, January 28

Scientists are building a computer made of algae to feed on photosynthesis

We use them in agriculture, cooking, as biological filters capable of mitigating CO2 emissions and even to make cosmetics and sportswear. Over the years we have known make good use of algae, but maybe we can do it even more. And in an unexpected way and field: generating energy for the Internet of Things (IoT).

It sounds outrageous, but maybe it’s not. Although on a very modest scale, researchers at the University of Cambridge have already shown that the idea is not far-fetched.

What Christopher Howe and his colleagues at the British university have just done is make a small device—similar to an AA battery—with plastic and aluminum and in which they introduced a colony of Synechocystis, a type of freshwater cyanobacteria commonly known as “blue-green algae.” The piece was in turn connected to an Arm Cortex MO+ microprocessor, a common component in devices integrated into the Internet of things.

The key: photosynthesis

When the device was ready, they placed it on the windowsill of one of the windows of Paolo Bombelli, another member of the team, and… they waited for half a year, from February to August 2021. The test coincided with one of the lockdowns due to COVID-19, so they had time. What did they discover? The great benefit that can be obtained from the photosynthesis of algae.

Taking advantage of this chemical process, scientists developed a kind of biological photovoltaic cell with which powered a microprocessor. “Here we describe a system that generates biophotovoltaic energy using photosynthetic microorganisms on an aluminum anode and that can power an Arm Cortex M0+ microprocessor,” the team details in their report.

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To get an idea of ​​the capacity of their invention, the Cambridge team tested their peculiar “computer” with very basic calculation cycles that required a power of 0.3 microwatts.

The experiment found some interesting data. For example, that the device provided a continuous current of electricity, both during the day and at night. Yes, photosynthesis needs light; but the scientists have verified that -since the algae process part of their food in the dark- the device emitted energy even during the early mornings.

Beyond how curious it is that a small “computer” works thanks to a container with water and a few algae, why is the experiment relevant? The key is that it can help us generate energy, and with less environmental impact than conventional batteries or solar energy. To make their device, in fact, they used common, cheap and recyclable elements, as well as water and Synechocystisa type of seaweed quite widespread.

“The growing Internet of Things requires more and more energy, and we believe that this will have to come from systems that can generate it, rather than simply storing it like batteries,” says Professor Howe, from the Department of Biochemistry: “Our photosynthetic device It doesn’t run out like a battery does because it continually uses light as its power source.”

we were impressed the consistency with which the system worked over a long period of time. We thought it might stop after a few weeks, but it continued to work,” acknowledges Bombelli. His team recalls that the likely spread of the IoT over the next few years will mean that there are more and more connected devices, a challenge for lithium-ion batteries.

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“Powering trillions of Internet of Things devices with lithium-ion batteries would not be practical: three times more lithium would be needed than is produced worldwide annually. And traditional photovoltaic devices are made with hazardous materials that have adverse environmental effects”, they abound from the University of Cambridge.

Perhaps one of the solutions goes through energy sources like the one explored by Howe and Bombelli.

For now, the team already points out its advantages to produce small amounts of energy in rural or low-income areas. “Even There is much to do“, they acknowledge.

Cover Image | University of Cambridge

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