A new generation of low cost solar cells could be as close as your next bowl of corn flakes if a grad student at Kansas State University has a say in the matter. The doctoral student in chemistry, Ayomi Perera, is working on a new dye-sensitized solar cell that eschews toxic chemicals in favor of a harmless bacteria that commonly occurs in soil and yes, corn flakes.
The corn flake – solar cell connection
Perera has tapped the bacteria Mycobacterium smegmatis for the job of creating low cost solar power. Despite the creepy sounding name it really is totally harmless, which you can easily test at home by enjoying a nice bowl of corn flakes.
As described by KSU writer Greg Tammen, the bacteria’s value in solar tech is that it produces a protein called MspA, which already has many applications in a purified form. Perera has been mixing it with dyes that contain fewer toxic chemicals than conventional dyes, and using the mixture to coat solar cells. The dye absorbs the sunlight, and the protein matrix grabs the electrons from the dye to create an electrical current.
Better, cheaper solar cells from corn flakes
The driving concept behind the new technology is to lower the cost of solar energy not by increasing the efficiency of the solar cell, but by making it cheaper and easier to manufacture, and potentially cheaper to dispose or recycle. So far the research shows signs of promise, as Perera explains:
“This type of research where you have a biodegradable or environmentally friendly component inside a solar cell has not been done before, and the research is still in its early stages right now. But we have noticed that it’s working and that means that the protein is not decomposed in the light and electric generating conditions. Because of that we believe that we’ve actually made the first protein-incorporated solar cell.”
President Obama’s “corn flake” energy policy
That same concept is driving the Obama Administration’s energy policy, through the SunShot Initiative. While some SunShot funding is dedicated to creating new high-efficiency solar cells, much is dedicated to lowering the overall lifecycle cost of solar energy. That can include cutting edge technology such as transparent solar windows, which enables solar cells to piggyback on
The goal of SunShot is to lower the cost of solar energy down to parity with fossil fuels in just a few years.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.