Researchers power an ARM processor for a year using algae

A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge has succeeded in replacing a battery with algae to provide continuous power to a microprocessor.

The tiny system is about the size of an AA battery and runs an ARM Cortex M0+ processor. However, rather than sip energy from a rechargeable battery, the researchers used a non-toxic blue-green algae called Synechoycystis to naturally harvest energy when exposed to sunlight through photosynthesis.

The end result is enough natural power generation to power the ARM chip, but just as important, it’s a continuous power source and doesn’t self-discharge like a battery does. When the sun comes up, the power comes and when the sun goes down, you might be surprised to find that it doesn’t stop. The research team believe there is enough food left for the algae to continue producing energy in the dark.

Professor Christopher Howe from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Biochemistry and co-lead author of the paper, explained how useful it could be(Opens in a new window)“The growing Internet of Things needs an increasing amount of energy, and we believe that will need to come from systems that can generate energy, rather than just store it like batteries.”

Natural light testing in “domestic environment and semi-outdoor conditions” resulted in continuous power generation for six months, by which time the team’s paper was submitted for publication.(Opens in a new window). But the algae are still photosynthesising, the chip is still getting the power it needs, and it’s been running for a year now.

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The ability to replace a lithium-ion battery with algae is highly desirable for IoT devices, especially considering that by 2025 more than 152,000 IoT devices are expected to connect to the internet every minute, according to DataProt(Opens in a new window). That’s potentially a lot of lithium saved for other much more power-hungry devices that run on batteries.

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