A team of researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) recently demonstrated how solar cells made of living organisms could generate energy in limited sunlight. Known as biogenic solar cells, they could offer an alternative to the synthetic versions currently in widespread use. The team published its findings in the journal Small.
The team was able to re-engineer some common bacteria to produce a photoactive pigment called lycopene. When studying the degradation of lycopene, a dye that gives vegetables their color, they noticed that this release of electrons was able to generate an electrical current.
This type of process had been examined before in developing biogenic solar cells by extracting natural dyes that bacteria use to generate energy in photosynthesis. The problem is that this prior process was too expensive for commercial applications. However, the new approach, which involves the manipulation of E. coli to produce more lycopene, is comparatively economical.
Researchers are optimistic that the cost savings could be pretty dramatic. The new process is pricing out at about one-tenth that of current methods. Another promising aspect of the technology is that the cells worked just as well in low light as they did in bright light. This discovery could allow for energy production in areas that receive less sunlight or at times when the sky is overcast.
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