When it comes to energy efficiency, there's still no substitute for millions upon millions of years of evolution. Scientists at UC Berkeley have found a way to hack common tobacco plants to grow synthetic photovoltaic and photochemical cells that can be extracted, dissolved in solution and sprayed onto a glass or plastic substrate to create solar panels. That's the idea, anyhow.
Eons of living on earth have made plants very efficient gatherers of sunlight, so the researchers genetically programmed a virus that can infect a tobacco crop. But rather than replicating genetic copies of itself like a normal virus, this one causes the plant to manufacture artificial chromosphores, tiny structures that turn sunlight into high-powered electrons.
The chromosphores grow one atop another until they're arranged in rods a few hundred nanometers long. Because nature is so good at harvesting solar energy, the chromosphores naturally arrange themselves just far enough apart to maintain a current, and just close enough that the electrons can be harvested.
The result is an environmentally safe manufacturing process for potentially limitless solar cells – as well as a healthy catalyst for tobacco farming. The cells are not quite as efficient as a silicon solar cell, but they are biodegradable and could be used in a variety of temporary or disposable capacities.
Of course, there's a drawback: the UCB researchers haven't actually demonstrated that the cells can turn light into usable electricity yet. While it's easy to get caught up in green excitement, it will likely take years before consumer devices, much less power grids, are powered by these naturally grown synthetic solar cells.
But there is some interesting biology at play here. Hacking plants' genomes to manufacture synthetic structures that can cleanly power our lives is a pretty revolutionary idea. The word "synthetic" often carries with it a connotation of being out of sync with the natural world; this kind of technology has the potential to change that.
Someday one of these many off-the-wall solar ideas is going to pan out and really make solar affordable. I wish these guys luck.
This is incredible... Bravo!
This is cool. Hopefully the plants are hybrids and can't spread to regular tobacco. I know I don't want to smoke photovoltaic cells.
If you do smoke this, I bet you end up getting a little shock in your mouth every time you smile. hahaha
i cant wait for solar energy to become affordable so i can start a company. phoenix gets rain lik 10 days outta the year. its ALWAYS sunny
"Eons of living on earth have made plants very efficient gatherers of sunlight"
Wrong-o! Plants are extremely inefficient. The best plants, algae, convert sunlight into biomass energy at an efficiency of a few percent, most do so at well below 1 percent.
The are a couple of reasons for this.
Nature is extremely constrained in the materials it may use.
Natural organisms cannot have explicit external support infrastructure(they can have some implicity support structures via predation, parasitism, commensalism or symbiosis with other organism but each of these have draw-backs to go with the benefits). Imagine how inefficient a car would be if it had to contain a car factory capable of producing car offspring that would grow up to become an adult car(remaining viable in all parts of the lifecycle) by somehow extracting material and energy from it's surroundings?
The most subtle reason is that sunlight is not usually a scarce resource from the point of view of plants and they don't necessarily bother to economize with it. The plant would rather be water-efficient or nutrient-efficient than energy-efficient. Hell, plants don't even bother trying to capture most sunlight(only blue-violet and red); they just reflect away the unwanted blue-green to orange light(that's right, not even plants like green).
When I see the statement "researchers genetically programmed a virus that can infect" thoughts of killer bee problems across the US, and the movie "I am Legend" come to mind. I hope they are careful with this type of genetic research. Is this research ethical?
TXSam has a point, messing with genetics is dangerous, man makes mistakes, and one of those mistakes is going to create a very big problem for something.
by the way who else here fears research done on computer brains that can think for themselves? there is a long list of movie that have bad outcomes with that also.
The tobacco plant just keeps on giving. It has already aided our society in so many ways, calming the nerves, helping children look cool, and now they may provide power.