Nowadays, with the convenience and speed of modern technology, we rarely stop to consider how much energy we are consuming with each Google search, text message sent to our friends, and photo we take on our cell phones. For example, the average laptop consumes around 100 watts of energy per day — enough to power a standard lightbulb for about two hours. Across billions of computers, this adds up tremendously. For a country like the United States with an energy efficiency of only about 42%, meaning that 58% of all energy produced is wasted, this constant energy consumption only adds to ever-increasing energy waste.
One of the primary contributing factors to energy waste is heat waste stemming from inefficient technology. Wasted heat occurs everywhere — whenever a computer runs, an engine is turned on, or a lightbulb is left on for extended periods of time, energy is lost as heat. In fact, nearly 70% of all worldwide energy production is lost as wasted heat. By now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Okay, I get that we waste a lot of energy — but what can we do about this?”
Well, I have some news for you — a potential solution may have been found in the most unlikely place one would expect to be blended with technology: nature. In a recent study published this January by scientists at Tel Aviv University, researchers found that by removing the ear of a dead locust and using it as a replacement for a robot’s internal microphone, the ear was able to detect electric signals in the air (sound) which were then sent to the robot as input. Essentially, the researchers were able to use a biological system to improve the energy efficiency of a technological one. Although the ear had to be “kept alive” and supplied with oxygen so that it could continue to send the robot signals, this was still a much more efficient alternative compared to having the robot respond to a built-in microphone.
This study is so significant because of what this means for us: the scientists were effectively able to unite biological and technological systems in a manner that allowed for the minimization of energy waste. Compared with the 100 watts per day consumed by a computer, the human brain only consumes around 20 watts per day. Hence, biological systems are not only more sensitive to external signals — they are also much more energy efficient. As stated by one of the study’s lead researchers, Dr. Ben Maoz, biological systems “expend negligible energy compared to electronic systems. They are miniature, and therefore also extremely economical and efficient” .
This opens the door to many opportunities in the technological field. Through the use of biological systems such as the ear of a locust, we can drastically decrease energy waste, and at the same time become more efficient with the way we use our energy. With the vast amount of natural resources we are surrounded by, the possibilities are truly endless. Who knows — we may even be able to someday utilize an elephant’s sense of smell, a bat’s echolocation, or a mantis shrimp’s visual system!
In a world where technology is at the center of our society, we must begin to find ways to improve how much energy we consume and waste on a daily basis. Hopefully, through discoveries like these, we will make use of the natural resources around us and move towards more efficient energy sources.
Published exclusively in the Brown Technology Review.