Bio-Solar Panel Runs on Bacteria Power

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©. Seokheun "Sean" Choi / Binghamton University

Researchers at Binghamton University are working on a new approach to bacteria power. We've seen microbial fuel cells where bacteria are used to breakdown organic material and create an electric current, but the approach from Binghamton is called a biological solar cell where cyanobacteria are used to to harvest light energy and produce electrical power.

Biological solar cells have been worked on for years by various research teams because they're seen as a potentially sustainable alternative to silicon-based solar cells. The team at Binghamton is pushing that research further by being the first to assemble them into a bio-solar panel capable of producing continual electricity.

The team took nine bio-solar cells are wired them together into a small panel. The cells were arranged in a 3x3 pattern and continuously generated electricity from the photosynthesis and respiratory activities of the bacteria in 12-hour day-night cycles over 60 total hours. The trial produced the greatest wattage yet of any bio-solar cells -- 5.59 microwatts.

Yes, that is really low. In fact, it's thousands of times less efficient than traditional solar photovoltaics, but the technology is still in its early stages. The researchers actually see this output as a success because the continual electricity generation means that with some improvements, bio-solar panels could be used in low-power applications very soon, like providing clean energy for wireless sensor devices placed in remote areas where frequent battery changes are difficult

The success of the bio-solar panel means that the technology is easily scalable and stackable, which is important for an energy source.

The researchers said in their report , ""This could result in barrier-transcending advancements in bio-solar cells that could facilitate higher power/voltage generation with self-sustainability, releasing bio-solar cell technology from its restriction to research settings, and translating it to practical applications in real-world."

The technology has a long way to go, but studies like this open the door to more research into cyanobacteria and algae and their metabolic pathways. How can they be better exploited for energy generation? What will maximize the electricity output of these devices? These questions still need to be answered, but in the future bacteria could be a reliable energy source.