Bio-powered cells work in the shade

July 17, 2018

Researchers from the University of British Columbia, Canada, have come up with an ingenious solution to the problem of overcast skies for solar cells: they have constructed bacteria-powered fuel cells that work in both dim and bright light.

The field of study regarding solar cells made up of living organisms is a fascinating topic. Researchers are trying to recreate photosynthesis, the natural process which plants use to convert sunlight into energy.

Previously, scientists have attempted to do this by extracting light-sensitive dye from modified bacteria, but the process was difficult, complex and expensive.

To work around this, the Canadian team used the bacteria E. Coli and genetically altered it to produce lycopene, which is the same dye that gives tomatoes their red or orange tint.

Lycopene is excellent at harvesting sunlight, and can do so in a wide range of weather conditions.

This genetically altered bacteria is then combined with a mineral that can allow electricity to pass through it. When this mixture is applied to a glass surface, a bacteria powered fuel cell is made.

Not only is this approach more efficient than previous methods, but it’s cheaper too. However, the technology still has some way to go, such as making the bacteria more resilient throughout the process.

Bacteria-powered solar electricity is being developed by many different research teams worldwide. One of the brilliant minds behind the technology, Hugo van Vuuren, a South African who co-founded Lebone – meaning “light stick” in the Sotho language – a startup based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lebone Solutions focuses their efforts on generating electricity through bacterial activity hidden in dirt. They are part of the World Bank’s Lighting Africa initiative which aims to provide innovative low-cost energy solutions for all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Close to 600 million people in the region live without grid electricity. The dirt–powered cells can produce enough current to power LED lights and charge cell phone batteries, both invaluable to those living off-grid or in rural areas.