Harnessing the power of algae: new, greener fuel cells move step closer to reality

11/01/2018

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A new design of algae-powered fuel cells that is five times more efficient than existing plant and algal models, as well as being potentially more cost-effective to produce and practical to use, has been developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge.

This is a big step forward in the search for alternative, greener fuels
- Paolo Bombelli

As the global population increases, so too does energy demand. The threat of climate change means that there is an urgent need to find cleaner, renewable alternatives to fossil fuels that do not contribute extensive amounts of greenhouse gases with potentially devastating consequences on our ecosystem. Solar power is considered to be a particularly attractive source as on average the Earth receives around 10,000 times more energy from the sun in a given time than is required by human consumption.

In recent years, in addition to synthetic photovoltaic devices, biophotovoltaics (BPVs, also known as biological solar-cells) have emerged as an environmentally-friendly and low-cost approach to harvesting solar energy and converting it into electrical current. These solar cells utilise the photosynthetic properties of microorganisms such as algae to convert light into electric current that can be used to provide electricity.

During photosynthesis, algae produce electrons, some of which are exported outside the cell where they can provide electric current to power devices. To date, all the BPVs demonstrated have located charging (light harvesting and electron generation) and power delivery (transfer to the electrical circuit) in a single compartment; the electrons generate current as soon as they have been secreted.

In a new technique described in the journal Nature Energy, researchers from the departments of Biochemistry, Chemistry and Physics have collaborated to develop a two-chamber BPV system where the two core processes involved in the operation of a solar cell – generation of electrons and their conversion to power – are separated.

“Charging and power delivery often have conflicting requirements,” explains Kadi Liis Saar, of the Department of Chemistry. “For example, the charging unit needs to be exposed to sunlight to allow efficient charging, whereas the power delivery part does not require exposure to light but should be effective at converting the electrons to current with minimal losses.”

Building a two-chamber system allowed the researchers to design the two units independently and through this optimise the performance of the processes simultaneously.

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Image: Artist's impression

Credit: Kadi Liis Saar

 

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

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