fluorescent algae

These fluorescent algae are able to capture up to 95% of available light.

David Nield writes in ScienceAlert.com that a long-living, light-emitting microalgae could be about to help us develop the next generation of solar panels. These fluorescent algae are able to capture up to 95% of available light — way better than even our most efficient solar panels.

Using advanced mass spectrometry methods, where ionization is used to analyze chemical and structural properties of the organisms, University of Birmingham and Utrecht University scientists have been able to get a more insightful look at two types of microalgae in particular: cyanobacteria and red algae.

A mass of light-harvesting antennae called phycobilisomes cover these microorganisms’ surface, responsible for converting light into energy. Each antenna is made up of stacks of building blocks, and the new study has identified four different types of building blocks — a huge step in understanding how these algae work.

These phycobilisomes, or antennae, are able to capture up to 95 percent of the light that reaches them. The potential boost for renewable energy is huge, considering the majority of mainstream photovoltaic cells we have at the moment operate in the 10-20 percent efficiency range.

By identifying the distinct building blocks or modules in the cyanobacteria and red algae that haven’t been spotted before — each a little different in the way it traps light — scientists can start to work out how to develop better performing solar panels.

There are more layers of biological sophistication to dig down into yet, and the team estimates there might be as many as 20 building block types to discover. “The ingenious control panel that algae use to convert sunlight into usable energy is more complicated than a Swiss watch,” said Albert Heck, one of the researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “This is the product of three billion years of evolution, and engineers could learn a lot from it — a primal organism that gives us the blueprint for the ultimate super-efficient solar cells.”

The research has been published in Cell Chem.

Read More