Scientists continuously power a computer for a year using algae

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Scientists at the University of Cambridge have created a computer that can only be powered by algae.

Research scientists used a widespread species of blue-green algae to power a microprocessor continuously for a year using only ambient light and water.

The super computing system has the potential to offer a renewable means of powering small devices. The system, which has been compared in size to an AA battery, contains a type of non-toxic algae called Synechocystis. This algae uses photosynthesis to create an electric current that interacts with an aluminum electrode and is used to power a microprocessor.

The system uses algae and photosynthesis for its power. (Credit: Unsplash)

The system also doesn’t need much maintenance, as it ultimately creates its own energy and food through the photosynthesis system. Although photosynthesis requires light, the computer can still turn on at night or in the dark, as the system stores some of its food to process when there is no light.

The tiny computer system is also praised for its relatively low impact on the environment as it uses inexpensive and widely recyclable materials. The design is believed to be easy to replicate, and the research team believe the system could be replicated thousands of times to power large numbers of small devices as part of the Internet of Things. The researchers say it’s likely to be most useful in off-grid situations or in remote locations, where small amounts of power can be very beneficial.

The results research inspired by seaweed was first published in a research paper from the famous university. Professor Christopher Howe from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry, one of the paper’s co-lead authors, wrote: “The growing Internet of Things needs an increasing amount of energy , and we think that will have to come from systems that can generate the energy, rather than just storing it like batteries.”

The algae computer has been running for almost a year.  (Credit: Dr Paolo Bombelli)
The algae computer has been running for almost a year. (Credit: Dr Paolo Bombelli)
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He added: “Our photosynthetic apparatus does not discharge like a battery, because it continuously uses light as its energy source.”

The science experiment was first created in a home environment and tested for six months. Dr Paolo Bombelli from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry, the first author of the research paper, said: “We were impressed with how consistently the system performed over a long period – we thought ‘He might stop after a few weeks, but he just kept going.’

The system, which can be categorized as part of the growing Internet of Things network, joins other systems including low-cost computer chips and wireless networks. All network elements use only a small amount of power, and the many billions of devices in this network are expected to grow. In fact, that number is expected to reach one trillion devices by 2035.

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