Bacteria that live almost a mile under the surface of the ocean, where light is scare, have adapted biological ways to harness tiny amounts of light very efficiently, and in some cases can use photosynthesis to convert 100 percent of the light they find into electricity. In contrast a typical solar panel commonly converts around 15 percent of sunlight into electricity.
Now researchers at the University of Cambridge are studying the light-harvesting proteins of the deep sea Green Sulfur Bacteria to see if they can provide breakthroughs for solar energy and other electricity devices. The research is in an area called quantum biology, and the scientists say it falls outside of ‘classical’ physics, and into quantum physics.
Organisms that do photosynthesis use a network of pigments held in place by protein structures, or what scientists call pigment-protein complexes, where electrons are harvested. In many organisms as the electrons move through these systems they lose energy. But in the Green Sulfur Bacteria they are able to move electrons through their photosynthesis system to the point of harvest without losing that energy on the way.
Raising the efficiency of solar cells (which make up solar panels) is very important work for solar companies. The higher the efficiency of the cells, the more electricity can be created by the panel and the fewer cells and panels needed.
Solar companies have been working diligently on these innovations in recent years, as the basic low efficiency solar panels become more and more commoditized. For example, Alta Devices, makes cells that can convert a whopping 28.8 percent of sunlight into electricity. But those types of cells are far more expensive than the standard cells, and many are still in the research and development phase.
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