The quest to develop more efficient solar panels is one of the biggest challenges to more sustainable energy. But the secret could be found not in the sky or even in the facilities that manufacture solar cells, but deep in the ocean.
The truly surprising part? It’s been there longer than most of us could imagine.
Microalgae are probably the oldest surviving living organisms on the planet. They have evolved over billions of years to possess light harvesting systems that are up to 95 per cent efficient. This enables them to survive in the most extreme environments and adapt to changes our world has seen over this time-span.
New research carried out at the Universities of Birmingham and Utrech has revealed these tiny, light-emitting microalgae could hold the key to the next generation of organic solar cells for solar panels. Because of the complexity of the organisms and the huge variety of different species, however, progress in this area has been limited.
The team made use of some of the advanced methods of a technique called mass spectrometry, enabling the researchers to characterize individual components of the algae light-harvesting system. This approach revealed details of distinct modules of the system that have never been seen before. This fine detail will help scientists understand why microalgae are so efficient at light harvesting.
The next step for the team will be to study in more detail how energy is transferred through these light-harvesting systems and pinpoint why the modules they have identified are so efficient. “With most solar panels on the UK homes operating at 10-20 per cent efficiency, increasing this efficiency to 95 per cent will dramatically increase the use of solar power technology and in doing so help protect the environment,” said Dr. Aneika Leney in the School of Biosciences, at the University of Birmingham, a lead author on the study, which is published in Cell Chem.