Researchers at the University of Tennessee are exploring ways to harness ultra-efficient photosynthesis in order to produce clean and renewable power.
One of the notable consequences of human pollution and overfishing in the world’s oceans has been an uptick in the jellyfish population. Surging numbers of jellyfish are wiping out important key fisheries, shutting down coastal power plants, and damaging tourism, yet creative scientists at the University of Tennessee and a handful of other labs may have found a surprising way to use the jellyfish to produce renewable energy by creating sustainable solar cells from jellyfish goo. As crazy as it may sound, the field of biosolar technology, which uses biological material to trap the sun’s energy, promises to revolutionize solar power as conventional solar cells are often not very environmentally friendly to produce despite their rapidly decreasing cost. Though the field of solar power has been dominated for years by photo-voltaic cells, the appeal of harnessing the photosynthetic components of living organisms is obvious as they have already been perfected over millennia.
Bruce, a professor of biochemistry, and cellular and molecular biology has been experimenting with using the green fluorescent protein (GFP) found in jellyfish. GFP, the substance which makes jellyfish glow, produces an electric current when placed on an aluminum electrode and exposed to ultraviolet light, a discovery made six years ago by Swedish scientist Zackary Chiragwandi. Now Bruce, via the “Bruce Lab” at the University of Tennessee, is looking for ways to extract the exact compounds where photosynthesis occurs in the cells of the jellyfish as well as plants.
Bruce hopes to discover how to extract these photosynthesis “reaction centers” efficiently and at little cost in order to allow biosolar panels to be manufactured en masse. Bruce told Salon that such a breakthrough could lead to the creation of an enriched green paste that could be painted onto transparent and conductive panels as part of a low-cost solar kit. Unlike regular solar panels, these devices could simply be cleaned and re-coated with the photosynthetic plant material once their output begins to drop, making it a much more sustainable alternative.
Biosolar research is by no means widespread – it is a niche field with no more than 20 labs worldwide. However, recent breakthroughs may soon change that. This past spring, researchers at Binghamton University successfully created a solar panel using solar cells powered by cyanobacteria. The bacteria-powered panel generated 5.59 microwatts – more than any other existing small-scale biosolar panel. Though this pales in comparison to traditional solar panels, biosolar panels can produce electricity at night or on cloudy days as the bacterial respiration produces power even in the absence of sunlight. Soon after, Iranian researchers successfully built a solar cell combining a fluorescent compound found in jellyfish with light-activated proteins harvested from bacteria, producing a more efficient solar cell. According to MEHRS news agency, with further optimization of energy conversion, these cells can replace the older generations of solar cells in the near future. However, as Professor Bruce notes, biosolar needs more funding in order to make such technology feasible for mass production.