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Are Biohybrid Cells the Future of Solar?

A student conducts research in Barry Bruce's lab.

Solar technology got its start in 1876, when the development of the first solar cell proved that light could be converted into electricity. Since then, solar cells have been used to power satellites, railroad crossings, and even vehicles and aircraft. As the technology has changed over time, so have its uses.

As with most technology, however, the future of solar power will certainly be dominated by the most cost-effective and energy-efficient developments. To meet these requirements, many researchers in the field have focused their efforts on testing more abundantly available new materials for the cells themselves. Professor of Biochemical and Molecular Engineering Barry Bruce suggests trying a completely different approach to the problem: biohybrid solar cells.

“Biohybrid solar cells are solar cells that are part biology, part materials science,” said Bruce. “The solar cell you’re familiar with is all minerals. It’s titanium or silica—it’s all these things that are on earth but not very abundant.”

Bruce turns to plants and photosynthesis as a possible alternative. He suggests that using photosynthetic components derived from biological materials could lead to less costly, more efficient solar cells.

“Photosynthesis is really the energy-driving metabolism for our planet, and most of the work in biofuels is really still photosynthesis,” he said.

One of the major stumbling blocks on the path to biohybrid solar cells is the need to deal with fluctuating light levels. Photosynthesis requires sunlight and weather changes can greatly affect how much sun a solar cell actually gets, which could then affect its productivity. 

Bruce’s JDRD team plans to tackle this issue by studying how certain bacteria that depend on photosynthesis adjust to changing light conditions. 

“This complex changes its architecture depending on whether we add high light or low light,” he said. “This is very profound because we didn’t understand that bacteria, which are considered to be more primitive, had the ability to adjust to alternating light levels.”

Bruce and his team are using small angle neutron scattering and cryo-electron microscopy to study the structure of protein complexes in a specific strain of cyanobacteria. He hopes the results will serve as a guidepost for solving the light variability problem in solar cells.