Tiny light-emitting microalgae could hold the secret to the next generation of organic solar cells

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Flourescent proteins in the laboratory. Credit: University of Birmingham

Tiny light-emitting microalgae, found in the ocean, could hold the secret to the next generation of organic solar cells, according to new research carried out at the Universities of Birmingham and Utrecht.

Microalgae are probably the oldest surviving living organisms on the planet.

They have evolved over billions of years to possess light harvesting systems that are up to 95 per cent efficient.

This enables them to survive in the most extreme environments, and adapt to changes our world has seen over this time-span.

Unravelling how this system works could yield important clues about how it could be used or recreated for use in new, super-efficient organic solar panels.


What are organic solar cells?

The term organic relates to the fact that carbon-based materials are at the heart of these devices, rather than silicon.

The square or rectangular solid solar panels that most of us are familiar with, require fixed installation points usually on roofs or in flat fields.

Organic photovoltaics (OPV) can be made of compounds that are dissolved in ink so they can be printed on thin rolls of plastic, they can bend or curve around structures or even be incorporated into clothing.

Flexible, printed solar cells offer a wide range of possibilities.

They can work indoors and they can be made semi-transparent, so they could be incorporated into windows and generate power during daylight.

They offer huge potential for buildings as they are lightweight so might be ideal for deploying on the roofs of houses in developing countries where structures might not suit heavy silicon.

They could be used on the roofs of cars, and in clothes, even in glasses to charge your phone while you are out and about.


Because of the complexity of the organisms and the huge variety of different species, however, progress in this area has been limited.

The team made use of some of the advanced methods of a technique called mass spectrometry, which enabled them to characterize individual components of the algae light-harvesting system.

This approach enabled them to reveal details of distinct modules of the system that have never been seen before.

This fine detail will help scientists understand why microalgae are so efficient at light harvesting.

Aneika Leney, in the School of Biosciences, at the University of Birmingham, is one lead author on the study, which is published in Cell Chem.

“Microalgae are fascinating organisms that can do things so much better than systems designed by engineers,” she explains.

“By applying this knowledge, we can start to make real progress towards adapting these systems for use in solar panels.”

Secrets of fluorescent microalgae could lead to super-efficient solar cells
Red algae are among the most efficient energy converting organisms on Earth. Credit: Unsplash

Professor Albert Heck, Scientific Director of the Netherlands Proteomics Centre, Utrecht University, added:

“Our presumption is that when you see algae, they look sluggish and certainly not very interesting.

But when you look into the molecular details of their machineries that make them convert sun light into energy so efficiently, you think these are more sophisticated than the most sophisticated Swiss watch.

This needs to be the product of 3 billion years of fine-tuning, called evolution.”

The next step for the team will be to study in more detail how energy is transferred through these light-harvesting systems and pinpoint why the modules they have identified are so efficient.

“With most solar panels on the UK homes operating at 10-20 per cent efficiency, increasing this efficiency to 95 per cent will dramatically increase the use of solar power technology and in doing so help protect the environment,” adds Dr. Leney.

More information: Leney, Heck et al (2019). ‘A Colorful Pallet of B-phycoerythrin Proteoforms Exposed by a Multimodal Mass Spectrometry. Chem.

Journal information: Chem
Provided by University of Birmingham

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