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Could Microalgae be the Green Energy of the Future?

The use of microalgae as a source of energy is not a completely new concept; it has been used as a source of biofuel for some time. But now an innovative team of scientists from Optical Bio Micro Systems based at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, have developed micro-cellular technology that is capable of harnessing electrical power produced by blue-green algae during the process of photosynthesis and respiration.

This unique and innovative technology can be scaled up to provide an economical method of producing clean energy, and has been hailed as potentially the most superlative green energy source of the future.

It is widely accepted that the world needs to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels as a source of energy if we wish to curb global warming and climate change. While there are several alternative sources of green energy available, including wind- and hydro-power, the sun is the largest provider of renewable carbon-free energy, emitting more energy towards Earth every hour than what humankind uses in a year. Consequently, technologies such as solar panels that harvest energy from the sun play a fundamental role in making the transition to a carbon-free source of energy. Energy from the sun also drives production in plants via the process of photosynthesis. Taking this into account, the research team set about devising a way to harness the photosynthetic power of microalgae.

During the process of photosynthesis and respiration electrons are transferred along chains within the plants cells. To capture the electrical energy produced by microalgae during the process of photosynthesis and respiration, the researchers wanted to trap these electrons as they are released by the microalgae. To do so they developed a photosynthetic power cell that consisted of: 1) an anode; 2) a cathode; and 3) a proton exchange membrane.

According to the study, which was recently published in the scientific journal TECHNOLOGY, the blue-green algae, which are housed in the anode chamber, release electrons via a redox agent housed in the cathode, to an electrode on the cells surface. An external load is connected to the electrode to extract the electrons. These tiny photosynthetic cells have the potential to produce 993 microvolts of power with a power density of 36.23 μW/cm2.

All that is needed to increase a power cell's performance is to reduce the spacing between the electrodes and the proton exchange membrane, and to improve the overall design of the power cell to enhance efficiency.

These photosynthetic micro power cells have significant potential for use as power sources in both wireless and military applications, as well as in biological/biomedical microelectromechanical systems (Bio-MEMS). However, there are still some challenges. Firstly, MEMS scientists need to create miniature scale anode-cathode chambers that are capable of generating sufficient cellular current and power densities from algal cells. Then, the production of the power cell needs to be scaled up to make it commercially viable. The research team at Optical Bio Micro Systems is currently hard at work trying to produce a photosynthetic power cell that has both a high power and high current density, in the most economical way possible.

References & Further Reading

[1] Mehdi Shahparnia, Muthukumaran Packirisamy, Philippe Juneau, Valter Zazubovich. Micro photosynthetic power cell for power generation from photosynthesis of algae .
TECHNOLOGY, 2015; 03 (02n03): 119 DOI: 10.1142/S2339547815400099
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