New bacteria-powered solar panels producing clean energy

12 Apr 2016

These are nine bio-solar cells connected into a bio-solar panel, via Seokheun Choi

New York researchers have developed a solar panel that generates continuous electricity through cyanobacteria, with photosynthesis the driving force.

By connecting nine identical bio-solar cells into a panel of 3×3, Seokheun Choi and colleagues from Binghamton University successfully produced bacteria-powered energy via bio-solar cells stacked together.

Reaching 5.59 micro-watts of power, the solar panel continuously produced electricity, with the nine-part construction being a world first. The report is published in Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical.

Cyanobacteria is the bacteria of choice, which is handy as it’s in such abundance on the planet that there’s no way you’ve gone through life without being introduced to it.

Named after their colour, cyanobacteria are 2.7bn years old, are incredibly successful survivors, and were the potential cause of mass extinctions.

Using it as a source of clean and sustainable energy has been an ongoing pursuit for a number of years now, with a previous Choi-run project improving on established bio-solar cells already of note.

Bio-solar cells being upgraded

At the time, his team changed the materials used in anodes and cathodes (positive and negative terminals) of the cell and also created a miniature microfluidic-based single-chambered device to house the bacteria instead of the conventional, dual-chambered bio-solar cells.

Recently, encouraged by this, they hooked up nine identical bio-solar cells in a 3×3 pattern to make a scalable and stackable bio-solar panel, which produced 60 hours worth of electricity.

The wattage produced is tiny, though. A standard rooftop solar panel produces around 200 watts of electrical power – these bio-solar cells would produce a tiny fraction of that.

“It is time for breakthroughs that can maximise power-generating capabilities/energy efficiency/sustainability,” Choi said.

“The metabolic pathways of cyanobacteria or algae are only partially understood, and their significantly low power density and low energy efficiency make them unsuitable for practical applications. There is a need for additional basic research to clarify bacterial metabolism and energy production potential for bio-solar applications.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic