Algae Researcher Creates Biophotovoltaic Paper

What if your wallpaper could generate electricity? Dr. Marin Sawa is using biotechnology to print algae onto paper to make a living biophotovoltaic system that could one day charge your smartphone or power your lights.

During photosynthesis, molecules of water are split into oxygen, protons, and electrons. As well as generating electrons in the light, cyanobacteria can continue to generate electrons in the dark using reserves from earlier light reactions. This is because the cells have a built-in energy store, like a battery. Researchers would like to harness this unique ability to generate “bioelectricity.”

“Microbiofuel cells — where microorganisms are grown to produce electrical energy from carbon sources — already exist,” says Dr. Marin Sawa of the Imperial College of London. “And photovoltaic cells — standard solar panels — already exist. It’s also possible to use cyanobacteria and algae to turn light directly into electricity. This is called biophotovoltaic technology.”

“I found I could create a very concentrated solution of cyanobacteria, like an ink, and print the cyanobacteria onto a sheet of paper using an ordinary printer,” she says. “The most important revelation was that the printed cells on paper could grow and photosynthesize with the same efficiency as they would in water.”

Using her “bioink” and computer-aided design, Dr. Sawa was able to control how the algae and cyanobacteria were deposited on the paper. And by combining this technique with electronic circuitry also printed onto the paper with conductive carbon nanotubes, Dr. Sawa and her colleagues created a first of its kind “biophotovoltaic paper.”

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