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UT researcher hopes his biosolar project leads to cheap, sustainable energy

A University of Tennessee, Knoxville professor and a team of researchers have developed a solar cell system that taps into the         photosynthetic processes of plants to produce efficient and inexpensive energy. 
Barry Bruce, part of UT's Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education, worked with researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Ecole Polytechnique Federale in Switzerland, to develop a process that improves the efficiency of generating electric power using molecular structures extracted from algae.

The biosolar breakthrough has the potential to make "green" electricity cheaper and easier, Bruce says.

To produce the energy, the scientists harnessed the power of a key component of photosynthesis known as photosystem-I (PSI). This complex was then bioengineered to specifically interact with a semi-conductor so that, when illuminated, the process of photosynthesis produced electricity. 

The research team says the system self-assembles and is simple enough to be replicated in most labs.

A new biosolar system system taps into photosynthetic 
processes from blue-green algae to produce electricity.
Image credit University of Tennessee, Knoxville
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"Because the system is so cheap and simple, my hope is that this system will develop with additional improvements to lead to a green, sustainable energy source," said Bruce.

The cell consists of small tubes made of zinc oxide bioengineered to attract PSI particles and quickly become coated with them. Done correctly, the two materials combine on the metal oxide interface, which when illuminated by sunlight, excites PSI to produce an electron which "jumps" into the zinc oxide semiconductor, producing an electric current.

"This is a real scientific breakthrough that could become a significant part of our renewable energy strategy in the future," said Lee Riedinger, UT interim vice chancellor for research.

Complete findings are in the current issue of Nature: Scientific Reports.  

Bruce's work is funded by the Emerging Frontiers Program at the National Science Foundation.

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