Biosolar breakthrough promises cheap, easy green electricity?

“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.”

The media release is below.

UT biosolar breakthrough promises cheap, easy green electricity

Barry D. Bruce, professor of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is turning the term ‘power plant’ on its head

Barry D. Bruce, professor of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is turning the term “power plant” on its head. The biochemist and a team of researchers have developed a system that taps into photosynthetic processes to produce efficient and inexpensive energy.

Bruce collaborated with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Switzerland to develop a process that improves the efficiency of generating electric power using molecular structures extracted from plants. The biosolar breakthrough has the potential to make “green” electricity dramatically cheaper and easier.

“This system is a preferred method of sustainable energy because it is clean and it is potentially very efficient,” said Bruce, who was named one of “Ten Revolutionaries that May Change the World” by Forbes magazine in 2007 for his early work, which first demonstated biosolar electricity generation. “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.”

Their findings are in the current issue of Nature: Scientific Reports.

To produce the energy, the scientists harnessed the power of a key component of photosynthesis known as photosystem-I (PSI) from blue-green algae. This complex was then bioengineered to specifically interact with a semi-conductor so that, when illuminated, the process of photosynthesis produced electricity. Because of the engineered properties, the system self-assembles and is much easier to re-create than his earlier work. In fact, the approach is simple enough that it can be replicated in most labs—allowing others around the world to work toward further optimization.

“Because the system is so cheap and simple, my hope is that this system will develop with additional improvements to lead to a green, sustainable energy source,” said Bruce, noting that today’s fossil fuels were once, millions of years ago, energy-rich plant matter whose growth also was supported by the sun via the process of photosynthesis.

This green solar cell is a marriage of non-biological and biological materials. It consists of small tubes made of zinc oxide—this is the non-biological material. These tiny tubes are bioengineered to attract PSI particles and quickly become coated with them—that’s the biological part. Done correctly, the two materials intimately intermingle on the metal oxide interface, which when illuminated by sunlight, excites PSI to produce an electron which “jumps” into the zinc oxide semiconductor, producing an electric current.

The mechanism is orders of magnitude more efficient than Bruce’s earlier work for producing bio-electricity thanks to the interfacing of PS-I with the large surface provided by the nanostructured conductive zinc oxide; however it still needs to improve manifold to become useful. Still, the researchers are optimistic and expect rapid progress.

Bruce’s ability to extract the photosynthetic complexes from algae was key to the new biosolar process. His lab at UT isolated and bioengineered usable quantities of the PSI for the research.

Andreas Mershin, the lead author of the paper and a research scientist at MIT, conceptualized and created the nanoscale wires and platform. He credits his design to observing the way needles on pine trees are placed to maximize exposure to sunlight.

Mohammad Khaja Nazeeruddin in the lab of Michael Graetzel, a professor at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne, Switzerland, did the complex testing needed to determine that the new mechanism actually performed as expected. Graetzel is a pioneer in energy and electron transfer reactions and their application in solar energy conversion.

Michael Vaughn, once an undergraduate in Bruce’s lab and now a National Science Foundation (NSF) predoctoral fellow at Arizona State University, also collaborated on the paper.

“This is a real scientific breakthrough that could become a significant part of our renewable energy strategy in the future,” said Lee Riedinger, interim vice chancellor for research. “This success shows that the major energy challenges facing us require clever interdisciplinary solutions, which is what we are trying to achieve in our energy science and engineering PhD program at the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education of which Dr. Bruce is one of the leading faculty.”

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7 thoughts on “Biosolar breakthrough promises cheap, easy green electricity?”

  1. If it works without government subsidies then great. The automoblie replaced the horse in short order without government intervention. If a technology is better, then it will live or die on its own merits.

  2. Pie in the sky, or more accurately algae in the sky. So this is supposed to result in more energy than the plants that were subjected to compression by the earth for millions of years and so have many more carbon bonds to be broken by oxidation to form energy?

  3. OK Professor Bruce, let’s cut the BS. How big is a megawatt plant? How sensitive is it to temperature changes? How long will it operate before it needs maintenance? How much training does it take to operate the plant?

  4. “potentially very efficient” – meaning it isn’t yet very efficient.
    “will require less time, land, water and input of fossil fuels to produce energy than most biofuels” – meaning we’re almost as efficient as horses at several acres per horsepower-day
    “so that, when illuminated, the process of photosynthesis produced electricity” – how much of the incoming light is actually converted?
    Biological materials contain carbon-carbon bonds and carbon-hydrogen bonds that are vulnerable to UV radiation (‘sunburn’). A few years in the sun and this expensive material will resemble a Landau top on an ’84 Buick.

  5. Keep researching. Gonna have to be better than all biofuels / nearly as good as the original solar biofuels, oil and coal. And good luck with the Greenpieces in the long run. Sounds like it requires a large scale human activity using new forms of life with a large land use / ecological footprint for anthropological commercial purposes. Might even call it genetically engineered mutation that could theoretically become The Thing – or at least The Blob.

  6. “major energy challenges facing us require clever interdisciplinary solutions” isn’t this statement the reason we have fracking and have vastly increased the recoverable oil and gas in the US? Perhaps we should stay focused on the place were we have growth potential. I’m not convinced by the optimism written in the story about the “Rapid Progress” expected from bio solar cells.

  7. what is the rate of degredation of the biological materials ? what happens when its freezes in northern climates or overheats in southern ones ?

    easily 10 years before this hit a rooftop near you …

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