Are we going to harvest solar energy in an unexpected way?

There is an old adage, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” This will be the theme of this article, but give me some time to explain. We have often been influenced by nature when designing materials. For instance, the idea for Velcro came from burrs that stuck to its designers’ clothes and dog. Yet we have come across a massive challenge in creating solar energy, trying to beat nature.

Believe it or not, in one sense, we have actually been able to beat nature, in the efficiency of converting light into the flow of electrons. The problem we have is we really need to make the process more efficient if we want to be able to power the world with the sun. We have been struggling with this issue for a long time, and thus far, we have made progress, but only incremental (though there certainly is potential with other recent discoveries such as Perovskyites, but that is a discussion for another time).

So going back to my original addage, if you can’t beat them (by enough) join them. This has been the recent tack taken by some researchers and it has begun yielding results. One example of this is a literal flower power technology. Researchers came up with a chemical mixture that allowed them to turn flowers into electric circuits. Of course there are numerous applications of such a technology, one of them is using the plants themselves to produce energy for us. We could skip the whole solar cell altogether and allow plants to do their photosynthesis and produce power for us in the process.

We don’t have all of our (alternative) eggs in one basket either. Not to be outdone, we may be getting some help from bacteria as well. We have been working on ways to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The idea is that we can create hydrogen fuel cells which could be used to power cars. The problem is that currently electricity from the power grid is used to do the splitting and that releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

However, with the help of bacteria, scientists have discovered a way that reduces carbon dioxide and at the same time produces the hydrogen, directly from the sun and at a higher efficiency than before. The bacteria is used to help reduce the carbon dioxide (reduce in the sense of chemical reduction not in the colloquial usage of the term).

Neither of these technologies are ready to deploy large scale yet, but they have both developed relatively quickly and it is certainly possible in the future that they may turn out as the best alternatives in creating energy from sunlight. And who could beat powering your house with a flower anyway?


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