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Researchers Harvest Electricity Directly from Plants

In learning to efficiently convert sunlight into electricity, we’ve got a lot to learn from plants.

Our best efforts with solar panels are only yielding efficiencies of around 17%, but plants are the ultimate solar harvesters, capable of turning sunlight into energy at an efficiency rate of nearly 100%.

Photosynthesis allows plants to produce almost an equal number of electrons to the amount of photons they receive, which is far and above the level of power conversion that our most efficient technologies can hit.

But thanks to the work of some researchers at the University of Georgia, we may someday be able to harvest energy directly from plants, grabbing electrons before they are used to make sugars in the plant cells.

While this approach is still in an experimental phase, Ramaraja Ramasamy, at the UGA College of Engineering, has developed a technology that can separate plant cell structures called thylakoids (which capture and store energy from light) and manipulate the proteins within them to allow for electrons to flow out along a wire instead of being used within the cells themselves.

“We have developed a way to interrupt photosynthesis so that we can capture the electrons before the plant uses them to make these sugars.” – Ramasamy

According to UGA, the modified thylakoids are attached to a backing of carbon nanotubes (50,000 times finer than a human hair), which act as electrical conductors for the electrons. The researcher’s small scale experiments with this technology revealed that the development is promising and worth further exploration, and could lead to improved stability and output for future commercialization.

“In the near term, this technology might best be used for remote sensors or other portable electronic equipment that requires less power to run. If we are able to leverage technologies like genetic engineering to enhance stability of the plant photosynthetic machineries, I’m very hopeful that this technology will be competitive to traditional solar panels in the future.

The electrical output we see now is modest, but only about 30 years ago, hydrogen fuel cells were in their infancy, and now they can power cars, buses and even buildings.” – Ramasamy

The full study is available at RSC Publishing: High photo-electrochemical activity of thylakoid–carbon nanotube composites for photosynthetic energy conversion

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