Scientists Print Living Solar Cells That Retain Energy On Paper

With an inkjet printer and carbon nanotubes, scientists have discovered a cheap way to create bio-solar cells with cyanobacteria. Their photosynthesis is able to generate electricity that's ideal for low-power or temporary devices.


May 28 2019, Updated 5:14 p.m. ET

Solar panels are a great renewable power source for homes and office buildings, but they can be overkill for smaller devices. Wearables and clothing can benefit more from kinetic energy, and we’ve seen carbon nanotubes in yarn being stretched out to produce electricity. That same material has now been used with cyanobacteria to create micro-solar panels.

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Scientists have been studying the energy potential of cyanobacteria for a few years now. They create their own food through photosynthesis, which is able to absorb solar power and hold an electrical charge. Back in 2015, scientists in Canada were researching blue-green algae, which is created from cyanobacteria, that could potentially replace batteries for smaller devices.

While it may not be enough to hold a significant charge on our smartphones, European scientists from Imperial College London, University of Cambridge, and Central Saint Martins have been able to create a battery and bio-solar panel with cyanobacteria. They’re still alive after being printed with carbon nanotubes on a piece of paper using an inkjet printer.

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How does this work? Inside of the chamber that these cyanobacteria are printed on, two electrodes are separated just like a battery and a membrane allows only protons to move through. When oxygen is created in the anode side, it’s released from the cathode section. Protons then move toward the cathode, where electricity generates and water is formed.

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By using an inkjet printer and paper, scientists have been able to cut back on expensive manufacturing costs. Even though it’s a unique form of solar panel that can generate power without sunlight, there isn’t any feasible way that this process could replace traditional photovoltaic cells. It doesn’t make a lot of energy at one time and they have a short lifespan, living approximately 100 hours after production.

These bio-solar cells could provide a temporary power solution in the future, assuming they can continue to scale it higher. It’s anticipated that they can create these micro-panels to the size of a standard 8.5-by-11 piece of paper. Dr. Marin Sawa, a co-author of the report from Imperial College London, gives examples of what their research can accomplish:

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“We think our technology could have a range of applications such as acting as a sensor in the environment. Imagine a paper-based, disposable environmental sensor disguised as wallpaper, which could monitor air quality in the home. When it has done its job it could be removed and left to biodegrade in the garden without any impact on the environment.”

Scientists are attempting to make it even more affordable while also creating a longer-lasting, more powerful bio-solar cell. Should they continue to ramp up this technology, it could be useful in developing countries to monitor their environment and health. It’s a perfect way to electrify items that require low power and will be used temporarily.

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