The sun provides the most abundant source of energy on the planet and plants are the undisputed champions of solar power, they said, operating at 100 percent efficiency.
For every photon of sunlight a plant captures, it produces an equal number of electrons, and converting even a fraction of this into electricity would improve upon the efficiency seen with solar panels, which generally operate at efficiency levels between 12 percent and 17 percent, the researchers said.
During photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to split water atoms into hydrogen and oxygen, which produces electrons which go on to help create sugars that plants use as food to support growth.
"We have developed a way to interrupt photosynthesis so that we can capture the electrons before the plant uses them to make these sugars," engineering Professor Ramaraja Ramasamy said.
The technology involves separating out structures in the plant cells that are responsible for capturing and storing energy from sunlight then putting them on a backing that acts as an electrical conductor, capturing the electrons from the plant material and sending them along a wire.
"We have discovered something very promising here, and it is certainly worth exploring further," he said. "The electrical output we see now is modest, but only about 30 years ago, hydrogen fuel cells were in their infancy, and now they can power cars, buses and even buildings."
"Clean energy is the need of the century," he said. "This approach may one day transform our ability to generate cleaner power from sunlight using plant-based systems."
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