How Spinach Can Boost Efficiency of Biohybrid Solar Cells

Scientists often look at how nature has evolved in order to figure out how they can optimize technology. Sunflowers and many other plants have learned the ability to follow the sun as it moves across the horizon, which optimizes the photosynthesis and enables them to grow at a faster pace. Researchers at Vanderbilt University (VU) in Nashville, Tennessee have figured out how isolate and combine PS1, a photosynthetic protein found in spinach, with silicon typically used in solar cells.

The discovery has lead to a Biohybrid solar cell that is capable of producing significantly more power when exposed to sunlight than any of it`s other solar cell of its kind.

“This combination produces current levels almost 1,000 times higher than we were able to achieve by depositing the protein on various types of metals. It also produces a modest increase in voltage,” said David Cliffel, associate professor of chemistry at VU.


Image credit: Vanderbilt University
An older design of the researchers` biohybrid solar cell.

The research team thinks they will be able to construct a Biohybrid  solar cell on par with mature solar conversion technologies in three years time – if the current trajectory of increasing voltage and current keeps going.

Kane Jennings, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at VU, holds an award from the Environmental Protection Agency that allows her undergraduate engineers to design a prototype based on their “spinach-silicon” approach. A two-foot solar panel could potentially produce 100 mA – the equivalent power that is required small electrical devices.

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