The discovery, made by Barry D. Bruce and his team of researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, MIT, and EPF in Switzerland, tapped into the photosynthetic process and developed their own method for improving the efficiency of generating electricity by using plant-derived molecular structures.
“As opposed to conventional photovoltaic solar power systems, we are using renewable biological materials rather than toxic chemicals to generate energy. Likewise, our system will require less time, land, water and input of fossil fuels to produce energy than most biofuels,” he said.
Bruce, a professor of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, studied a vital component for photosynthesis known as photosystem-I (PSI) from blue-green algae and published his findings in Nature: Scientific Reports.
Plainly, he and his colleagues engineered the PSI to interact with a semiconductor to produce electricity when hit by light. Moreover, the new system is easier to recreate than Bruce’s earlier work, because it has self-assembling properties. This allows for it to be created in most labs, which is a step toward easier optimization.
The researchers used small zinc oxide tubes, which have been engineered to attract PSI particles which stuck to them as a sort of coating. Metal oxides form at the contact surface, which when illuminated, attract the electron produced by the PSI, which jumps into the zinc oxide semiconductor, producing electricity.
The discovery is several orders of magnitude more efficient than what’s been done before, but nevertheless needs to be refined. With the help of Michael Graetzel’s laboratory in Switzerland (he invented organic solar cells back in the 90’s), this may actually be the next generation of truly green energy harvesting materials, and could pave the way for solar panels to be installed virtually everywhere, not only on rooftops.