Both solar cells and plants process sunlight one way or the other, but there’s a catch: one of them is more efficient. Guided by common sense, we’d say that the plants’ billions of years of “experience” in capturing and storing energy will win. Is it so?
Man-made solar cells only capture the energy, while plants also store it. To compete with a plant, a solar panel would also have to store its energy, so a team of scientists led by Dr. Robert Blankenship from Washington University in St. Louis connected a solar array to an electrolyzer to extract hydrogen from water with the electricity produced by it.
They concluded that the energy needed to perform the split is the same as the one that the plant needs to store its own captured energy into carbohydrates, so basically what they did was building an artificial plant, in what concerns the energy.
Following the results they got from the electrolyzer and the plant, it was concluded that a solar cell built using today’s average technology is 10 times more efficient than a plant’s photosynthesis process.
The following question pops up: is that telling us we should use more solar panels instead of growing biofuel crops? I don’t know. All that’s certain is plants do a lot more good to the environment than solar cells ever did, and they’ve been doing that for billions of years, without having to be more energy efficient. If we think technically, though, it’s possible solar cells produce more oxygen than plants, and gather more energy in a form that wouldn’t need burning anything to extract it.
My conclusion? Plants are good at what they do best, and that is to provide us and the rest of the ecosystem with themselves, while solar cells are only good at charging car batteries or replacing fossil fuels. It’s a thin line between these two uses, and I guess we’ll be doing just fine when we’ll separate what’s been fossilized for a purpose from what we need to stay alive, healthy and kicking. All in all, I’m not a biofuel advocate.