Scientists Create Microcomputer Powered by Algae

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Scientists at Cambridge University have created a prototype computer powered by photosynthetic algae.

As spotted first by New Scientist, the researchers created a metal enclosure the size of a AA battery and sealed up a “widespread species” of blue-green algae into the unit. Instead of using traditional batteries or solar power, the algae is photosynthesized, allowing the unit to generate a tiny current of electricity, which powers the ARM Cortex-M0+ chip inside the device.

According to the outlet, the unit was left on the windowsill in a researcher’s home for six months. Further noting that the algae-powered computer kept running an additional six months after the official testing concluded.

A picture of the algae-powered computer. | (Image Credit: Paolo Bombelli / Creative Commons)

“We were impressed by how consistently the system worked over a long period of time – we thought it might stop after a few weeks, but it just kept going,” Dr. Paolo Bombelli, one of the authors of the paper said in a press release.

The algae-powered ARM chip consumed 0.3 microwatts an hour, meaning this computer does not use nearly enough watts of power compared to an average PC. While the power consumption of computers varies based on several factors, the average energy consumption for a desktop computer is 60-250 Watts, according to Northwestern University Information Technology.

The device itself is a proof of concept, but the research team is hopeful that this could be the future of the Internet of Things devices. The device using solar power instead of batteries can have a smaller environmental impact, with the study conducted being part of a larger area of research known as “Biophotovoltaics,” which focuses on creating clean energy using microorganisms.

“The growing Internet of Things needs an increasing amount of power, and we think this will have to come from systems that can generate energy, rather than simply store it like batteries,” joint senior author of the paper, Professor Christoper Howe said in the press release. “Our photosynthetic device doesn’t run down the way a battery does because it’s continually using light as the energy source.”

Professor Howe told New Scientist that more research needs to be done to determine how to scale up the project. And while we are years away before stuff like this could be applied to everyday items, it is interesting to think of a gaming PC powered by aquatic, plant-like organisms that I see on the surface of my local pond.

Taylor is the Associate Tech Editor at IGN. You can follow her on Twitter @TayNixster.



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