Cheaper, more efficient solar cells, inspired by photosynthesis, in the works at UBC

The energizer bunny may have competition.

UBC microbiologisty Thomas Beatty is collaborating with UBC bio- and electrical engineer John Madden and chemist Curtis Berlinguette to develop a new generation of solar cells. Their inspiration comes from the behaviour of microorganisms during photosynthesis.

“We have solar powered calculators and things like that, that as soon you turn off the light they die," said Beatty. “It will be really cool [if] we’d turn off the light and it kept going.”

Beatty breaks down the science behind the cells by explaining that their ongoing aim is to “trick” a protein so that electrons are directed to an electrode onto which a protein has been bound. Under normal conditions, proteins keep the electrons inside.

“What we’re really trying to do is modify the protein in such a way that it sort of short-circuits itself and instead of moving the electrons to the right place, or what the protein thinks is the right place, is to bleed them off into an electrical circuit,” said Beatty. “From there, the electrons can move as electricity into a circuit to do something like power your charger, your computer or your phone.”

Beatty hopes that these cells will be more efficient than those that are currently available.

“The biological material that we’re working with basically [has] an efficiency of one for each photon that’s absorbed, one electron is ejected and so it’s very, very efficient,” said Beatty.

In contrast, materials like silicon need more than one photon to move an electron into a current.

Of course, this work takes time. Beatty estimates that it will take roughly 18 to 24 months before they have something that is commercially attractive.

Though these cells are still in their early stages and work continues on multiple fronts, Beatty considers studying whether these cells can function like a battery in terms of storage the most encouraging work right now.

When asked what he hopes to see this eco-friendly solution be used for, Beatty spoke to the need for hooking up people in off-the-grid regions in Canada and beyond with safe, sustainable energy.

“There’s lots of places that get sunlight that don’t have electrical cables connecting them to the grid and so if you can give them a simple way to charge a cell phone, or turn on a light in the evening so that they can read a book or get enough light to eat their dinner by or something like that then it will be a wonderful, wonderful thing,” said Beatty.