Scientists Have Powered a Basic Computer With Just Algae For Over 6 Months

Machine overloads in the Matrix movie series turned to sleeping human bodies as sources of power in a nightmarish image of a world cut off from sunlight. Algae would have been the best option if they had had access to sunshine.

Engineers from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom have powered a microprocessor for almost six months using just the electricity provided by a common cyanobacteria species. The approach is designed to power massive swarms of electrical gadgets.

"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," says Christopher Howe, a biochemist and (presumably) non-mechanical person.

The Internet of Things, in contrast to the side of the internet where we tweet and share TikTok videos, links less opinionated devices like washing machines, coffee makers, automobiles, and distant environmental sensors.

These gadgets can work without access to a power grid in some instances. They're sometimes so far away or in awkward locations that replacing a dead battery or repairing a degraded or broken power supply is difficult.

The solution for technology that works on a single flash of electricity is to simply absorb energy from the environment, absorbing motions, carbon, light, or even waste heat and using it to generate voltage.

Photovoltaic cells (solar power) are a logical option in today's environment, considering recent advances in extracting more electricity from every ray of sunlight.

If you want electricity at night, you'll need to add a battery to your gadget, which not only adds heft but also necessitates a mix of potentially expensive and even poisonous materials.

Making a 'living' power source that transforms materials found in the environment, such as methane, results in a greener, simpler power cell that will not deteriorate when the Sun sets. They will, on the other hand, run out of juice when their food supply runs out.

Algae might be the answer, working as a solar cell and living battery to produce a steady current without the need for nutritional replenishment. Algae is already being investigated as a source of energy for bigger enterprises, but it might also power a plethora of little gadgets.

"Our photosynthetic device doesn't run down the way a battery does because it's continually using light as the energy source," adds Howe.

Aluminum wool is used as an anode in their bio-photovoltaic system since it is reasonably easy to recycle and poses less environmental risks than other materials. The team was also able to look at how living systems interact with power-generating aluminum-air batteries.

The 'bio' element of the cell was Synechocystis, a freshwater cyanobacteria strain chosen for its widespread distribution and significant research.

A AA-battery-sized variant of the cell produced slightly over four microwatts per square centimeter under ideal laboratory circumstances. The algae continued to break down food stores even after the lights were turned off, generating a lesser but still noticeable current.

That may not sound like much, but when you just need a small amount of power to function, algae-power might be the answer.

A programmed 32-bit reduced-instruction-set processor, usually found in microcontrollers, was handed a series of sums to gnaw on for 45 minutes before taking a 15-minute break.

The processor operated through this similar work for more than six months in the laboratory's ambient light, indicating that basic algae-based batteries are more than capable of powering primitive computers.

"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," explains scientist Paolo Bombelli.

We can't keep churning out lithium-ion batteries at the rate we're finding new ways to incorporate electronics into ordinary goods.

And, to be honest, utilizing sleeping human bodies to fuel massive computer swarms is a bit much. Isn't that true, machines?
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