These living solar cells make energy, even in bad weather

When it comes to generating energy from sunlight, unusual solutions have been shown to make the process more efficient.

Now, a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) has demonstrated how solar cells made of living organisms can generate energy even with limited sunlight. Known as “biogenic” solar cells, these cells could offer an alternative to synthetic cells currently used in conventional solar panels, providing an energy source despite bad weather. A paper detailing the research was published this month in the journal Small.

“This is the first study demonstrating genetically engineered biogenic materials for solar cell fabrication,” Sarvesh Kumar, a chemical and biological engineer at UBC and one of the paper’s lead authors, told Digital Trends. “We utilized a harmless bacteria and re-engineered its internal machinery to produce a photoactive pigment called lycopene.”

In the past, researchers have developed biogenic solar cells by extracting natural dyes that bacteria use to generate energy in photosynthesis. This has proven to be an expensive process, though.

In a stroke of luck, the UBC scientists identified a potentially cheaper route while genetically engineering E. coli so that it would produce lots of lycopene, the dye that gives tomatoes their color, which has been shown to be an effective light harvester. Noticing that the lycopene was degrading (releasing electrons), they wondered whether the rate of this degradation was enough to generate a usable current. They coated the lycopene-producing bacteria with a mineral semiconductor, applied them to a glass surface where they could collect sunlight, and examined what happened.

The current they generated reached a density of 0.686 milliamps per square centimeter, which was 0.324 milliamps higher than previous studies. It’s tough to tell what cost savings might result if this technology is developed at scale but the researchers estimate that dye production using their process costs about one-tenth of current methods.

Another promising aspect of the technology is that the cells worked just as well in low light as they did in bright light, meaning the method could be useful in places in the far north or south, where skies are often overcast.

“We don’t view our technology as a competitor to conventional solar cells. Rather, they are a complement,” said Vikramaditya Yadav, a chemical and biological engineer at UBC and another of the paper’s lead authors. “Still, the cells that we have developed are a ‘generation one’ device that needs significant improvements and optimization before it can reach the levels of silicon solar cells. However, even in its infancy, the technology has already thrown up some promising applications. Exploring low-light environments such as mines requires the use of sensors that could be powered with biogenic cells such as the one we have developed.”

Mobile

Tech Armor says its new screen protector improves iPhone performance. We tested it

Tech Armor has a new screen protector for the iPhone, the Enhance, that can redirect harmful radiation, while improving cell signal and battery life. Skeptical? So were we, so we put it to the test.
Emerging Tech

Bright idea: Keep your gadgets juiced up with these stellar solar chargers

Looking for a gizmo that can help you charge your phone while on the go? Here, we've outlined the best solar chargers on the market, whether you're looking to charge your phone once, twice, or three times over.
Emerging Tech

Genetically modified bacteria may be the key to plants that fertilize themselves

Scientists from Washington University in St. Louis have developed genetically engineered bacteria capable of pulling fertilizer out of thin air. Here's why that's such a potential game-changer.
Emerging Tech

New light-emitting implant zaps cancer tumors with incredible precision

Researchers from Japan's Waseda University have developed a light-emitting, NFC-powered implant which could help battle cancer in sensitive parts of the body by emitting light. Here's how.
Product Review

Stop stringing cords and replacing batteries with Ring's Spotlight Cam Solar

We like outdoor wireless cameras but dread the low-battery warning that inevitably comes with them. We tested the Ring Spotlight Cam Solar to see if it was the answer to our dead-battery prayers.
Emerging Tech

Scientists gave gerbils a futuristic ear implant that lets them hear light

Researchers at Germany’s University Medical Center Göttingen have demonstrated a technique that involves using flashes of light to restore hearing in gerbils. Here's how the tech works.
Mobile

Ironically, tech will save us from the horror of Cell Phone Courtesy Month

July is Cell Phone Courtesy Month, and while we could probably all do with being a little more considerate with our phone use, advancements in tech have the potential to end us staring at a little screen when we shouldn’t.
Features

From picking to pollinating, agribots are pushing farming into the future

Farming is becoming increasingly challenging. To deal with environmental pollution, labor shortage, and other major issues, agricultural scientists are turning to robots and AI.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Laptop screen extenders and self-healing tents

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

These 3D-printed houses could be one-tenth the price of regular homes

Could 3D printed houses be the way of the future? Researchers from Estonia have created a 3D-printable concrete-style material that could reduce the construction costs of houses by around 10 times.
Emerging Tech

Rolls-Royce is creating a fleet of robotic snakes and beetles to repair planes

Researchers from Rolls-Royce are creating snake and insect-swarm-inspired robots that are designed to crawl inside airplane engines to carry out inspections and perform maintenance.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in July 2018, from ‘Coco’ to ‘Jurassic Park’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, subdued humor, or anything in between.
Emerging Tech

Man vs. machine: An A.I. algorithm attempts to break a world speed record

A new machine learning algorithm created at Switzerland’s EPFL is being used to design what its creators hope is the world's fastest bicycle. It will attempt a world record later this year.
Home Theater

The 7 best TVs you can buy right now, from budget to big screen

Looking for a new television? In an oversaturated market, buying power is at an all-time high, but you'll need to cut through the rough to find a diamond. We're here to help with our picks for the best TVs of 2018.
Mobile

Samsung patent shows 'hidden display' on Galaxy X foldable smartphone

Samsung has been showcasing bendable display technology for a few years now and a folding smartphone might finally become a reality. The Galaxy X may be the company's first example, and here's everything we know about it.
Emerging Tech

Prototype ‘smart bandage’ can detect infections and auto-apply antibiotics

Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have developed a smart bandage that's capable of checking whether a wound is infected, and treating it with antibiotics if it deems that it is.
Emerging Tech

Prisons are fighting back against contraband-dropping drones. Here’s how

The threat of people smuggling contraband into prisons via drone is a genuine threat here in 2018. This anti-drone surveillance system is designed to help solve the problem for good.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Emerging Tech

Blue Origin reaches a big milestone, lands rocket booster and crew capsule

Jeff Bezos' space endeavor Blue Origin recently completed its most important test -- a live separation of its crew capsule from its rocket booster. More than 20,000 people tuned into the livestream.
Emerging Tech

Geologists discover a quadrillion tons of diamonds that are impossible to reach

Researchers have discovered that there may very well be a quadrillion tons of diamonds buried 100 miles below Earth's surface. The bad part? Sadly, they're impossible to reach right now.
Emerging Tech

Gotta catch em all: Harvard’s undersea grabber is a Poké Ball for sea life

Harvard’s new folding origami robot grabber is designed to perform delicate feats, such as catching underwater creatures with ease -- and crucially, without injuring them in the process.