Computer powered by colony of blue-green algae has run for six months

Blue-green algae, a type of cyanobacteria, set in a container on a windowsill powered a computer continuously for six months using photosynthesis


12 May 2022

A container holding blue-green algae that powered a computer

P. Bombelli

Blue-green algae sealed within a small container has powered a computer for six months, and researchers say that similar photosynthetic power generators could run a range of small devices cheaply in coming years, without the need for the rare and unsustainable materials used in batteries.

Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge and colleagues built a small enclosure about the size of an AA battery out of aluminium and clear plastic. Inside, they placed a colony of a type of cyanobacteria called Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 – commonly known as “blue-green algae” – which produces oxygen through photosynthesis when exposed to sunlight.

The device was placed on a windowsill at the home of team member Paolo Bombelli during a covid-19 lockdown in 2021, and stayed there from February to August. It provided a continuous current across its anode and cathode that ran an Arm microprocessor.

The computer ran in cycles of 45 minutes of calculating sums of consecutive integers to simulate a computational workload, which required 0.3 microwatts of power, and 15 minutes of standby, which required 0.24 microwatts. The microcontroller itself measured the current ouput from the device and this data was stored in the cloud for researchers to analyse.

Not only were there no power interruptions during the whole six months, but in the six months since the experiment ended the bacteria have continued to produce power.

Howe says that there are two potential theories for the source of the power. Either the bacteria itself produces electrons, which creates a current, or it creates conditions in which an aluminium anode in the container is corroded in a chemical reaction that produces electrons. Because the experiment ran without any significant degrading of the anode they believe that the bacteria is producing the bulk of the current.

Howe says that the approach could be scaled up, but further research is needed to know how far. “It’s not entirely straightforward,” he says. “So putting one on your 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 on that front. 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.”

The bacteria creates its own food during photosynthesis and the device can even continue producing power during periods of darkness, which researchers believe is possible because the bacteria continues to process surplus food.

The researchers have experimented with creating a similar enclosure from empty plastic bottles and believe that effective devices could be produced very cheaply, with commercial application possible within five years. They have also found other species of algae that create higher currents.

Journal reference: Energy & Environmental Science, DOI: 10.1039/D2EE00233G

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