Learning From Deep-Sea Bacteria to Increase Solar Panel Efficiency

Green Sulfur Bacteria uses Isorenieratene to Achieve Near 100% Solar EfficiencyPhotovoltaic [PV] solar panels are a really green way to generate electricity. They are simple, have zero emissions, and last for decades. They also take up space, and the more electricity required, the more space they use, and not everyone has a whole lot of space they’d like to give up for solar panel installations. One thing that would really go a long way toward the acceleration of solar installations is increasing efficiency.

Currently, the most efficient PV solar cell, developed by NREL, is just 44% efficient, and they’re working on gaining 50% efficiency for their next feat. Typical PV solar cells are just 15% to 20% efficient, and the rest of the sun’s energy, that isn’t converted to electricity, is lost to reflection and heat. Various materials and methods have been experimented with to increase PV solar panel efficiency, and a new method might come from deep under the sea.

Plants that use photosynthesis to convert solar energy into chemical energy typically do best where the sun shines, but where one might never think to look for photosynthesis is deep under the ocean. As it turns out, there are bacteria that use photosynthesis to convert what little light there is into energy to survive. Since the amount of light at the bottom of the ocean is near zero to begin with, then how do these bacteria survive? The photosynthesis these bacteria use is nearly 100% efficient.

Scientists are studying the photosynthesis used by deep-sea Green Sulfur Bacteria noting that their efficiency doesn’t depend on classical physics, but may be bordering on quantum physics. An entirely new branch, quantum biology, and the study of these highly efficient bacteria could lead to increased solar panel efficiency, where efficiency is critical, especially considering variable solar conditions as well as how much space current solar installations require. Could a PV solar panel, run on the same physics as the Green Sulfur Bacteria, run on starlight?

Space-filling model of the isorenieratene molecule, a carotenoid pigment used by green sulfur bacteria to harvest light from photosynthesis.

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