Scientists at Cambridge University have recently come up with a way to power electrical devices using algae, in a positive move which could eventually mean that it could replace batteries. They have discovered how to use cyanobacteria — commonly called blue-green algae — to continuously power a microprocessor for a span of over six months. The system used by the scientists was inexpensive and contained largely recyclable materials, a type of non-toxic photosynthetic algae called Synechocystis. The study, published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, marks a significant step toward creating more sustainable batteries. “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,” says Paolo Bombelli, a researcher from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry and lead author of the paper, in a statement.
The scientists created an enclosure out of aluminium and clear plastic and put the algae inside it. The device, which is about the size of an AA battery, was placed on a windowsill in one of the researchers’ homes during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2021 and remained there from February to August. The bacteria powered an Arm Cortex M0+ processor — a microprocessor that is widely used in the network of appliances connected to the internet, also called the Internet of Things (IoT), the authors explained in the study. The researchers programmed the processor in a way to perform cycles of 45 minutes of computation work followed by 15 minutes of standby. The cyanobacteria are capable of producing energy even without light, perhaps because they process some of their food in the dark, which generates an electrical current. The system used in this experiment provided consistent power for six months, using the sun’s energy during the day via photosynthesis and continuing to provide energy in the dark, too, as the algae broke down its food. “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,” said Professor Christopher Howe, one of the senior authors of the paper
The researchers have mentioned that this isn’t revolutionary yet. They believe the technology could be a reliable way to power small devices, particularly in rural areas that have no reliable source of energy. But it would take about 333 million of these algae batteries to power a normal desktop computer! The Arm Cortex M0+, the microprocessor that the cyanobacteria powers, is just a small, energy-efficient device used in IoT devices. “Putting one on your roof isn’t going to provide the power supply for your house at this stage. There’s quite a bit more to do on that front,” Howe explained. “But [it could work] in rural areas of low and middle income countries, for example, in applications where a small amount of power might be very useful, such as environmental sensors or charging a mobile phone,” he added.
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