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Swiss designer Fabienne Felder has worked with University of Cambridge scientists Paolo Bombelli and Ross Dennis to develop a way of using plants as "biological solar panels".
"Theoretically any photosynthesising plant could be used as a biological solar panel", said the team, which has developed what it calls Photo Microbial Fuel Cells (Photo-MFCs) to capture and harness the electrical power of plants.
The team has prototyped the world's first moss-powered radio to illustrate the potential of its Photo-MFCs. Moss was chosen because its photosynthetic process makes the plants particularly efficient at generating electricity.
Fabienne Felder developed the technology with biochemist Dr. Paolo Bombelli and plant scientist Ross Dennis, both of the University of Cambridge.
The radio is the first time Photo-MFCs have been used to run an object demanding more power than an LCD screen.
The Photo-MFCs consist of an anode where the electrons generated by photosynthesis are collected, a cathode where the electrons are finally consumed, and an external circuit connecting the anode to the cathode.
The moss grows on top of a composite of water-retaining materials, conductive materials, and biological matter.
The team has high hopes for the potential of this emergent technology. "We may assume that in five to ten years the technology is applicable in a commercially viable form," they said. Currently the technology used in the radio can only capture about 0.1% of the electrons the mosses produce.
Felder compares the technology behind biological solar panels to the very early days of experiments with photovoltaics. "Biological solar panels will go through a similar development phase: determining optimal conductive materials; the right plants; and watering and maintenance systems that guarantee stable flow of electricity", she explained.
"Finding the right plants will be a study in itself," said Felder. "Mosses are extremely desiccation resistant, but they don’t like direct sunlight. Other plants, which might also fulfil certain criteria in their photosynthetic process to be considered efficient photo-active components, might struggle in colder weather. So the right mix of vegetation will be the solution."
Rice paddy fields may also provide good environments for biological solar panels because of the large amount of water used in their cultivation, she added.
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