Scientists Created Mutant Bacteria That Collect Solar Power on Cloudy Days

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In a lab somewhere in British Columbia, a scientist examined the bacteria he'd been genetically engineering under a microscope. This wasn't just any bacteria. It could hold the answers to humanity's most pressing problems.

"It alive," I like to think he whispered. And then, "Oh my God! It's profitable!"

To understand what I'm daydreaming about, you need some background. Humans are in an energy rut, but you know who seems to be collecting energy just fine? Plants. Plants turn sunlight into energy, and they're really good at it. Unfortunately, humans just don't have a knack for photosynthesis.

That why we make solar panels: they're our version of what a plant does naturally. But solar panels only work well in places with a lot of, you know, sun. They're just not that efficient under cloudy skies. There's a reason Honolulu is switching to solar power, while Vancouver is not.

Luckily, Canadians are on it.

For a while, scientists have been thinking: "Hey, plants seem to make energy pretty well, even in Canada. Maybe we should just use them instead of making robot versions."

Like plants, some kinds of bacteria make dye that turns sunlight into energy. So scientists did the obvious: they sucked out the bacteria's dye.

Not this biogenic bacterium's best day. bacteria solar cell

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The process was a little vampirey, but it worked okay. Except for being expensive. And requiring a bunch of toxic chemicals that roughed up the dye.

But recently, some University of British Columbia scientists went, "Hey, bacteria seem to make energy pretty well. Maybe we should just use them instead of sucking out their insides first." So the researchers genetically engineered a bunch of E-coli bacteria to make a ton of dye. Then they smeared the bacteria over glass to see if it would collect solar energy.

It worked! In fact, this new version was twice as efficient, ten times cheaper and 87 percent less creepy than the old bacteria dye stuff.

“We recorded the highest current density for a biogenic solar cell,” said Vikramaditya Yadav, the University of British Columbia engineering professor who headed the project. “These hybrid materials that we are developing can be manufactured economically and sustainably, and, with sufficient optimization, could perform at comparable efficiencies as conventional solar cells.”

And here's why this really matters: the bacteria worked even when it was cloudy out. That means places like Canada might soon be able to collect solar energy just as well as Hawaii, bringing Canada one step closer to becoming a tropical getaway.

Baby steps.