Microalgae study leads to solar energy breakthrough

[UK] Microalgae cover large swathes of our oceans. In their millions of years of evolution, they have learned how to harvest light almost seamlessly. Now, researchers believe they have the key to understanding how to replicate their methods.

When you’ve survived several environmental conditions for billions of years, you pick up all sort of tricks along the way.

For cyanobacteria and red algae, it’s the ability to harvest light as efficiently as possible – even more than solar panels.

Now, scientists have figured out how the organisms perform their light-capturing trick. With this knowledge, we could develop the next generation of solar panels.

One of the researchers from the University of Birmingham UK, Aneika Leney said:

“Microalgae are fascinating organisms that can do things so much better than systems designed by engineers. By applying this knowledge, we can start to make real progress towards adapting these systems for use in solar panels.”

Aside from the complex nature of the microalgae, there are several different species of the microorganisms. As a result, researches have had limited success using them in solar panel designs – until now.

It all begins with a vital question:

Why Are Microalgae Such Efficient Solar Converters?

Previous studies already revealed that Phycobilisomes – a mass of light-harvesting antennae – are evenly distributed across the surface of the microorganisms. As you may have guessed, the microalgae depend on these antennae to convert light into electricity.

A large number of the mainstream photovoltaic cells operate with 10 to 20 percent efficiency. The phycobilisomes, on the other hand, can capture up to 95 percent of the light reaching them.

Taking our understanding of the microorganism a step further, a group of scientists has recently identified the various stack of building blocks present in each antenna.

Thanks to the discovery of these distinct building blocks or modules in red algae and cyanobacteria, the researchers now have an understanding of how the microalgae trap light. The next step is to replicate the process.

“The ingenious control panel that algae use to convert sunlight into usable energy is more complicated than a Swiss watch,” says one of the researchers, Albert Heck from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

At the moment, the team has only been able to identify four building blocks. However, there are still layers of biological sophistication to uncover, with the building blocks estimated to be as many as 20.

With more building blocks comes a better understanding of the microalgae’s ability. In the end, we could take a cue from nature’s blueprint and build the ultimate super-efficient solar cells.

“This is the product of three billion years of evolution, and engineers could learn a lot from it,” Heck concluded.


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