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    Bacteria Leads the Way to Ultra-Efficient and Affordable Solar Energy

    Written by

    Adam Clark Estes

    Solar energy is sort of a silly challenge, not because it's not important or interesting even innovative. It's simply silly that it's so challenging. The sun produces a ridiculous amount of energy! In any given second, that big yellow ball of fire cranks out the equivalent of a trillion one megaton bombs, enough juice to sustain the needs of civilization for half a million years. But our methods for tapping into solar energy are inefficient at best as we're still struggling with ways not only to capture that energy but also to store it. For guidance, scientists have lately been looking rather closely at the world champions of solar energy: plants.

    A few years ago, a Swiss scientist successfully developed solar cell technology that mimics photosynthesis. Professor Michael Gratzel ended up winning the Finland Technology Academy's top prize for the new cells that are so streamlined, they can be integrated into regular glass on buildings. Since the cells are also built from natural ingredients, they're much cheaper to produce than the average solar cell. "What's very exciting is that you collect light from all sides, so can capture electricity from the inside as well as the outside," Gratzel said at the time. "You could think that the glass of all high-rises in New York would be electricity generating panels."

    Since then, however, scientists have had a hard time cranking up the efficiency of solar cells in a cost-effective way. Last year, a team of MIT scientists had a breakthrough of their own when they developed photosynthesis-based solar cells with 10,000 times more efficient than previous technology, but that still left them with just a 0.1 percent efficiency. Plants themselves convert sunlight to electricity with a 0.1 to 0.8 percent efficiency while solar panels currently on the market do so with an efficiency anywhere from 6 to 20 percent. However, these solar panels are exponentially more expensive to build than photosynthetic ones and, as a result, aren't getting the adoption rate needed to really make an impact on our energy consumption habits.

    Here's where we get into the awesome possibilities of weird science. Just as plants steered scientists towards photosynthesis-based solar cells, bacteria is showing us new possiblities for energy efficiency. A team of researchers at Cambridge is currently trying to figure out how deep sea green sulfur bacteria use photosynthesis to produce the energy that they need. They don't do it at an efficiency of 0.1 or even 0.8, however. This bacteria lives so far under the surface that it has evolved to utilize nearly 100 percent of the solar energy that makes its way down. If they're abe to replicate the process, it could have huge effects on the solar power industry.

    But even with all of the incremental victories, we're reminded of just how much of the sun's energy we're missing out on. Things are getting better. In the lab, some scientists have created solar panels with a 40 percent efficiency, though they're prohibitively expensive. Stanford scientists recently created solar cells so portable, they're actually stickers. This bacteria idea holds promise. However, none of this will matter until people can actually afford to buy this stuff and use it instead of coal for power. So far, we're pretty for off on the economics of this whole mess. Remember Solyndra?

    Image via Flickr