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Biosolar Technology Poised To Become Next Generation Of ‘Green Energy’

The term “Biosolar” doesn’t mean a whole lot to the average person right now. But according to Professor Barry Bruce from the University of Tennessee, it could become the next generation of solar power, drastically reducing solar costs and giving whole new meaning to the word “green energy”.

Bruce is working on the new biosolar energy technology with Andreas Mershin from MIT and Mohammad Khaja Nazeeruddin from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Basically, biosolar energy uses green plant material to harness solar power through photosynthesis. Usually plants use photosynthesis to produce food. However, the new biosolar technology converts energy derived from photosynthetic into a useable form of electricity.

A key element of photosynthesis is as photosystem-I (PSI) from blue-green algae. The researchers have bioengineered this complex to interact with an array of semi-conductors, which are able to harvest the electricity generated.

As Andreas Mershin explains: “”Leaves and plants are nature’s solar panels. The first step in photosynthesis is to change sunlight into a little bit of electricity that then gets converted into the processes of life. If we manage to somehow hijack the molecules that are responsible for photosynthesis in plants and other photosynthetic organisms, and use them to generate electricity for our own needs, this would represent a fantastic and disruptive new step in the way that we generate solar power or electricity in general.”

Although the efficiency of these new cells is quite low (around 0.1%), continued research into biophotovoltaics could push these efficiency number up to a commercially viable 1 – 2 %.

Unlike traditional photovoltaic solar energy which generates electricity from toxic materials, biosolar energy uses plant material to harness photosynthetic processes. Therefore, the primary materials are biological, and therefore pose little risk to the environment.

The materials needed to generate biophotovoltaic panels are cheaper and mostly renewable. Also, biosolar energy would require less time, water, land, and fossil fuel usage than biofuels.

What are your thoughts on biosolar energy? Do you think the technology looks promising as a form of renewable energy?

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  • Anonymous

    ::Bevis&Butthead:: “Bioengineered”.  That means frankenpower, right?::/Bevis&Butthead::

    Couple of thoughts on this that probably relate as much to the original article.
    1) There’s a heavy emphasis on how these cells are ‘biological’, ‘non-toxic’ or ‘pose little risk to the environment’.  I hadn’t realised that there was such a large concern about materials toxicity with standard PV solar cells. Oh, sure, there are scary sounding elements being used in these panels – indium gallium arsenide, for instance, or cadmium telluride, just from articles on this site – but I would have figured that use in solar panels would take these _out_ of the biosphere. Sequestering them, if you will, in a useful fashion.

    2) These hybrid-biological cells may well reach commercial viability at 1% – 2% efficiency, but will they be competitive in terms of power/area, even when the toxic externalities of inorganic PV cells are taken into account?

  • Agoldbe1

    Last night I heard a show on the Progressive Radio Network about environmental tipping points. I had heard of some of them but others just blew my mind, like declining ocean salinity and the shrinking of the Sahara. I thought shrinking deserts would be a good thing but it just shows how everything on the planet is connected. Here’s the link http://www.progressiveradionetwork.com/progressive-commentary-hour/2012/2/6/progressive-commentary-hour-020612.html

  • http://www.the9billion.com/ John Johnston

    Indeed, everything is connected, including industry and ecology. That’s why when economists speak of environmental “externalities”, that is a falsehood. It’s all part of the same thing. Pollution and waste is in no way external to the process.

  • http://www.the9billion.com/ John Johnston

    Solar panel manufacturing is not impact-free in an environmental sense, by any means. As an example, see this earlier post: Solar Panel Factory In China Shut Down After Anti-Pollution Protests http://bit.ly/nOyHQV

    But in the long run, hopefully it’s going to be much better than burning coal and gas. Solar panel recycling is going to become an important issue in the future too, when the panels now in use come to the end of their useable life. 

    The team working on this biosolar tech speaks of a probable DIY aspect to it. They might be low in efficiency, but very cheap and easy to set up. Eventually people should be able to easily put them to use where they otherwise might not, so it’s may well be a different market from more powerful solar installations.

  • Anonymous

    On the other hand, they _are_ external to the usual cost/benefit analyses that go (went?) into the economic decision making loop. Just like the social ‘externalities’ that underlie the lower wage rates in some countries.

    Sure, some companies are ‘internalising’ these externalities, but at the moment, it is not much more than a PR exercise, because it costs the company relative to their competitors.

    Fixing this is a primarily political problem, not an economic or even social one. You have to get enough countries on board – agreeing to regulate the externalities – that companies cannot simply migrate to a more hospitable host.

    I see it, in my mind, like tracking an epidemic in a population, or an infection in a single body. You can chase it out of one part, but unless you can make the whole system inhospitable, it’s only going to move.

    Actually, it’s probably more insidious in the economic sense, because those places that aren’t ‘part of the solution’ accrue economic benefit.  Consider the manufacturing that’s moved from the US to places in Asia.  And that benefit acts as a temptation to others, to lower their standards in order to get a piece of the action.

  • http://www.the9billion.com/ John Johnston

    Quite right. It’s good to see that quite a bit of pressure is being applied to some big companies to clean up there manufacturing act (such as Apple), when it comes to their worldwide supply chains. That is as it should be. As you say, it’s the whole world system we are talking about, not just a few countries or economies. 

    And it’s bizzarre that things like clean-ups from oil spills and the like, in the current system, are counted as adding to a country’s GDP! Craziness!