When it comes to creating clean, self-sustaining energy, nothing can beat plants--and that's precisely why researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) have worked so hard to hijack photosynthesis to create truly clean electricity.
Talk about green energy. Get it? It's a "solar plant!"
OK, I'll stop.
During photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, which produces electrons. Typically, plants take these electrons to create life-sustaining sugars. The UGA research team, led by Assistant Professor Ramaraja Ramasamy, discovered a way to intercept these electrons, allowing them to "harvest" electricity from plants.
To do this, the researchers manipulated the proteins contained within the plant's thylakoids, tiny structures that capture and store energy from sunlight. From there, the scientists essentially rerouted the plant's natural electron pathways to a series of carbon nanotubes that act as an electrical conductor.
These green generators don't produce much energy--about a maximum current density of 68 microamps per centimeter squared. However, the scientists say that "in small-scale experiments, this approach resulted in electrical current levels that are two orders of magnitude larger than those previously reported in similar systems."
At system with 100 percent quantum efficiency would be able to convert every photon beamed down from the sun into an equal number of electrons. According to the researchers, plants have quantum efficiency rates of close to 100 percent, while a traditional solar panel operates at quantum efficiency levels between 12 and 17 percent.
"We have discovered something very promising here, and it is certainly worth exploring further," Ramaraja said in a release. "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."
Ramaraja and his collaborators are already working to improve the stability and output of their device to bring it into full commercial use. If you're interested in reading more about the work, you can check out the UGA co-authored study.