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Bacteria-powered solar cells generate clean energy

Tue 12 Apr 2016

Researchers from the University of Binghamton were the first to create a biosolar panel that continuously generated electricity from bacterial activities. Miniature bio-solar cells were installed in an array and generated 5.59 microwatts of clean energy, and sustained that energy output over 60 hours.

This represents a step forward in the use of cyanobacteria as a sustainable clean energy source. While 5.59 microwatts is a small amount (one million microwatts make a single watt of energy; and a standard solar array for a 2,000 sq.ft home would be 4,000 watts), this research represents a significant improvement in biosolar performance. The researchers arranged solar cells in a 3×3 array, creating a nine-cell biosolar panel. The panel concept, and the successful functioning of sustained clean output, will contribute to the growing store of knowledge on how microorganisms use photosynthesis to transfer electrons, providing a foundation for the study of biosolar cellular activities.

“It is time for breakthroughs that can maximize power-generating capabilities/energy efficiency/sustainability,” said Seokheun Choi, assistant professor at the University of Binghamton and co-author of the paper detailing the experiment. “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.” However, he added, “Once a functional bio-solar panel becomes available, it could become a permanent power source for supplying long-term power for small, wireless telemetry systems as well as wireless sensors used at remote sites where frequent battery replacement is impractical.”

Cyanobacteria is often referred to as blue-green algae, and comprises the phylum of bacteria that obtain energy from photosynthesis. It can be found in almost every habitat on land or sea, and has been used in various research studies. In addition to clean energy applications, researchers have studied medical applications including cancer treatments, chemical production, and pollution control in the case of oil spills.

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