Electronic microsystem draws energy from the environment

Thursday, 17 June, 2021

Electronic microsystem draws energy from the environment

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst have created an electronic microsystem that can intelligently respond to information inputs without any external energy input, much like an autonomous living organism. It has been described in the journal Nature Communications.

The microsystem is constructed from a novel type of technology that can process ultralow electronic signals and incorporates a novel device that can seemingly generate electricity out of thin air from the ambient environment. Both of its components are made from protein nanowires, a ‘green’ electronic material that is renewably produced from microbes without producing e-waste.

The project represents a continuing evolution of recent research by the team, led by Jun Yao and Derek R Lovley. Previously, the research team discovered that electricity can be generated from the ambient environment/humidity with a protein-nanowire-based air generator (‘Air-Gen’), a device which continuously produces electricity in almost all environments found on Earth. The team had also previously reported that the protein nanowires can be used to construct electronic devices called memristors that can mimic brain computation and work with ultralow electrical signals that match the biological signal amplitudes.

“Now we piece the two together,” Yao said. “We make microsystems in which the electricity from Air-Gen is used to drive sensors and circuits constructed from protein-nanowire memristors. Now the electronic microsystem can get energy from the environment to support sensing and computation without the need of an external energy source (eg, battery). It has full energy self-sustainability and intelligence, just like the self-autonomy in a living organism.”

The system is also made from environmentally friendly biomaterial — protein nanowires harvested from bacteria. Yao and Lovley developed the Air-Gen from the microbe Geobacter, discovered by Lovley many years ago, which was then utilised to create electricity from humidity in the air and later to build memristors capable of mimicking human intelligence. The research thus heralds the potential of future electronics made from sustainable biomaterials that are more amenable to interacting with the human body and diverse environments.

“From both function and material, we are making an electronic system more bio-alike or living-alike,” Yao said.

“The work demonstrates that one can fabricate a self-sustained intelligent microsystem,” added Albena Ivanisevic, Biotronics Program Manager at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Army Research Laboratory, which is funding the research.

“The team from UMass has demonstrated the use of artificial neurons in computation. It is particularly exciting that the protein nanowire memristors show stability in aqueous environments and are amenable to further functionalisation. Additional functionalisation not only promises to increase their stability but also expand their utility for sensor and novel communication modalities of importance to the Army.”

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