Solar panels have always been referred to as solar cells, but cells of a different kind have been making waves in the solar commercial energy industry at the start of 2014 thanks to some bold new experiments taking place in labs across the world. Most prominently, labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – MIT – have been attempting to create ‘living materials’; bacteria spliced with non-organic material that can do a dazzling array of things with just light. Still in the proof-of-concept stage at the moment, the research team at MIT have already combined bacteria with man-made assets that allow them to conduct electricity and produce light in various colours like an LED.
However, author of the research paper Timothy Lu says that biosensors and super-efficient solar panels could be on the cards with this sort of technology.
Speaking to leading tech magazine Quartz, Lu said “When you look around the natural world, you can see that biology has done a great job of designing unique materials. But in our day-to-day lives, we use materials that aren’t alive in any way.”
Using plastics as an example, these might be ‘Cheap’ to buy and use, however they require vast amounts of effort and industry to create,“The goal is to find a way to engineer living cells so you can make them into materials you might not find naturally.” says Lu.
Lu’s team have used E.coli infused with gold nanoparticles in their first demonstration. Placing them in a biofilm with the right protein fibres as ‘anchors’ allows the E.coli to create working circuits.
The team at MIT say E.coli is just one potential candidate for a ‘living material’ with grow-your-own solar power a very real possibility: “We’re using E. coli now, but there’s no reason why we couldn’t use photosynthetic cells in the future,” Lu says. “And then, you could just stick it in the sun and grow all the material you want!”
Lu said the advantages would be an autonomous, self-repairing organism collecting solar like a traditional photovoltaic cell with none of the upkeep. Well, none of the traditional upkeep anyway.
Concluding his summary, Lu described the potential for introducing new materials into the system as they became available, allowing the biofilm to decide what was more efficient – effectively a bio-upgrade for solar panels as new technology is available.
The concept of organisms becoming part of the commercial energy marketplace is nothing new, however – last year, Germany welcomed it’s first algae-powered apartments as part of a building exhibition that used common algae to provide heat and power to a domicile – the first of its kind in the world.