Climate Change Challenge - tackling climate change and fuel poverty Follow uk8020org on Twitter

Domain for sale -

tomorrow's  challenge  today

Patron  Madonna                 not for profit organisation, please support this site


Resource Centre

News Centre

Save Energy


The Green Shop

Support Us



Green Invention News

Cambridge scientists target ultimate in green electricity
21 Oct 2009

Cambridge scientists produce electricity from algae


Back to News Home

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 source.

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 not.

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 Bath University.

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 photosynthesis.

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 efficient process.

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 communicate.”


Back to News Home

Source: Business Weekly