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Sunny outlook for solar energy with "biogenic", bacteria-powered cells.

Posted on Jul 11, 2018 1:39:05 PM

Bacteria-powered solar [Credit - The University of British Columbia]“These hybrid materials can be manufactured economically and sustainably and could perform at comparable efficiencies as conventional solar cells.”

One of the great things about covering the bio-based industry is the discovery of new technologies and innovations, particularly those that offer improvements on their conventional competitors. Finding out about the emergence of new approaches in the bio arena, and the improvements that they could offer should they go into widespread use, is a fantastic way to help convince the end users – be they governments, businesses or consumers – to take the bio-economy more seriously.

The product in this instance will almost certainly not be new to many of our readers but it was to us here in the Bio-Based World News office: bacteria-powered solar cells – developed in this instance by researchers at The University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. Like the traditional photovoltaic cells that adorn so many of the world’s roofs to make use of the sun’s rays, UBC’s creation uses the bacteria contained within the units to convert light to energy.

What sets UBC's “biogenic” cells apart are the reported advantages they have over traditional varieties, as according to UBC they work as well in dim light as in bright conditions. Such a quality is especially welcome in parts of the world – like British Columbia itself – where overcast skies are a fact of life.

Previous efforts to build biogenic solar cells have focused on extracting the natural dye that bacteria use for photosynthesis – a costly and complex process that involves toxic solvents that can cause the dye to degrade. The UBC researchers’ solution was to leave the dye in the bacteria, genetically engineering E. coli to produce large amounts of the dye lycopene for conversion to energy. The researchers then coated the bacteria with a mineral that could act as a semiconductor, and applied the mixture to a glass surface.

@UBC hopes that its biogenic cells made of living organisms will also one day become more powerful than conventional solar cells, something that could be on the horizon if the step improvements over previous bacteria cells are anything to go by. “We recorded the highest current density for a biogenic solar cell,” said Vikramaditya Yadav, a professor in UBC’s department of chemical and biological engineering, who also led the project.

“These hybrid materials that we are developing can be manufactured economically and sustainably, and, with sufficient optimisation, could perform at comparable efficiencies as conventional solar cells.”

As for the big factor that will determine whether these biogenic cells will become a success: the cost, Yadav was positive and believed that the process he helped mastermind would reduce the cost of dye production to around one-tenth of what it is normally.


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Dave Songer
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