Rural regions could get massive energy boost with algae breakthrough

10 Jan 2018

Image: Ye.Maltsev/Shutterstock

A team of biochemists have developed a new energy production system using algae that is five times more powerful than existing systems.

In the search for an energy source that doesn’t harm the planet in the process, a team of biochemists from the University of Cambridge has revealed a new algae-powered fuel-cell concept that goes above and beyond what existing systems are capable of.

Over the past few years, parallel to the development of synthetic photovoltaic devices – such as standard solar panels – has been biophotovoltaics (BPV), which offer an environmentally-friendly and low-cost approach to harvesting solar energy and converting it into electrical current.

These solar cells use the photosynthetic properties of microorganisms such as algae to convert light into electric current that can be used to provide electricity.

Now, in a paper published in Nature Energy, the research team has revealed a new two-chamber BPV system separates the two core processes involved in its operation: the generation of electrons and their conversion into electricity.

This decision allowed the researchers to design the two units independently and optimise the performance of the processes simultaneously.

Genetically modified algae are then added to the reactor. This algae carries a mutation that minimises the amount of electric charge dissipated during photosynthesis.

This helps overcome the issue all the previous BPVs had where electrons generated current as soon as they were secreted, creating significant amounts of wasted potential power.

Five times the power

The resulting power density is five times greater than that of previous designs at 0.5 watts per square metre.

While substantially lower than what you might find in a standard photovoltaic design, this design does have several attractive features, according to the researchers.

“In particular, because algae grow and divide naturally, systems based on them may require less energy investment and can be produced in a decentralised fashion,” said researcher Prof Christopher Howe.

Highlighting one particular use case for BPVs, the team suggested remote, rural locations in Africa and other parts of the world where access to a main electric grid is patchy or non-existent.

Additionally, other local communities could generate their own renewable energy rather than relying on larger solar farms located far outside the confines of a town or city.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic