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|A cutting edge solar energy technology
based on a method of processing sunlight that’s almost as old as
time itself is being developed in Cambridge.
Capable of not only producing an electric current, but also hydrogen
– touted by many as the answer to the world’s fuel concerns – the
project could eventually play a major role in a sustainable and
secure energy future.
The work is a cross-disciplinary project being undertaken by
Cambridge University researchers and uses the same biological
process that plants use to create food to produce an electric
current – photosynthesis.
The initial focus of the work is on electric currents and the team
hopes to manufacture a biological photovoltaic cell – a solar cell
based on an algae – that could eventually form the basis for
inexpensive photovoltaic cells based on a living organism with the
ability to self-replicate and self-repair.
The technology is still at a very early stage of development, but
has already received a second tranche of major government funding
and has had energy giant, BP, knocking on the door.
BP was turned away and told it is not yet ready for the market, but
the underlying technology and processes have already been presented
to the House of Commons and a patent has been filed.
This interest is unsurprising as the appeal of cheap and efficient
systems to harness solar energy is self-evident: The sun feeds the
earth with as much solar energy in an hour as the human population
consumes within a year, making it a very attractive renewable energy
This abundance of energy means that theoretically at least, solar
technologies could provide a significant proportion of the world’s
future energy requirement as long as the methods to harvest the
power are sufficiently cheap and efficient, which they currently are
At present, silicon-based solar photovoltaic cells are the method of
choice, but these devices tend to be very expensive to manufacture
since they contain highly purified, semi-conductive materials.
Initial funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research
Council (EPSRC) of around £160k has now been extended to £1.6
million, providing enough cash for another three years’
collaborative work between the Cambridge scientists and a team at
The project is largely based on the work of Paolo Bombelli, an
Italian postgraduate student at Cambridge University who first
developed his ideas as an undergraduate in Milan, inspired in part
by Robert Hill’s work on the role of water as the source of
electrons in the light reaction and development of oxygen during
Dr Adrian Fisher, the project’s principal investigator, has helped
focus the work on the electrons with hydrogen production a secondary
interest for now.
The team has so far been able to extract a current from a
photosynthetic process at the early stage of an algae’s development
and is now working hard to build a full understanding of the
processes and communications involved.
As the team is only attempting to intercept the electrons and not
fully grow the plant or algae, it believes it can eliminate a large
number of unnecessary chain reactions that would normally take
place. The belief is that by stepping in like this before there’s
any major biomass development, the team can produce a sufficiently
One of the principal challenges is that the team is not working on a
single synthetic cell, but rather a living organism, which requires
the management of biological material and electrochemistry.
Another challenge is the multidisciplinary nature of the work, which
includes groups based in plant science, biochemistry, genetics,
engineering and chemistry.
However, the basics are there. “We are trying to understand how it
works, how to wire up the biological material,” said Bombelli. “The
biological engine works very well – nature has it completely sussed
– but it’s about how to transfer it to something that can be used.”
The team has a demonstrator and industry is circling, but it is yet
some way from a device ready for the market place. “BP were
interested, but we said it was not the right time as the technology
is not ready for the market,” said Bombelli.
The team isn’t yet interested in a marketable product either
according to Dr Fisher. “That’s not our motivation, which is more
generic, it’s how to get an integrated circuit, how to wire it and