New way to harvest electricity from succulent plants’ natural photosynthesis

Producing ‘green’ energy- literally- from living plant ‘bio-solar cells.’


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Harvesting an electrical current from biological photosynthetic systems is typically achieved by immersion of the system into an electrolyte solution. Now, researchers from Technion-Israel Institute Of Technology have, for the first time, used a succulent plant to create a living “bio-solar cell” that runs on photosynthesis.

All living cells’ natural, biological processes—from bacteria and fungi to plants and animals—involve the movement of electrons. However, the cells can produce external electricity, provided electrodes are present. Researchers used bacteria to make fuel cells in the past, but the microbes required continual feeding. Instead, scientists, including Noam Adir’s team, have turned to photosynthesis to generate current.

Light drives a flow of water’s electrons during this process, which eventually produces oxygen and sugar. Like a solar cell, this implies that living photosynthetic cells continuously have an electron flow that can be drawn away as a “photocurrent” and utilized to power an external circuit.

Some plants have thick cuticles to preserve water and nutrients inside their leaves, such the succulents found in arid areas. As the electrolyte solution of an electrochemical cell, Yaniv Shlosberg, Gadi Schuster, and Adir intended to explore for the first time if photosynthesis in succulents might produce energy for living solar cells.

Using the succulent Corpuscularia lehmannii, often known as the “ice plant,” the researchers produced a living solar cell. They tested one of the plant’s leaves by inserting an iron anode and platinum cathode, and they discovered that it had a voltage of 0.28V. It could produce current for more than a day when attached to a circuit and achieve photocurrent densities of up to 20 A/cm2.

Even though these figures are lower than those of an ordinary alkaline battery, they only apply to one leaf. According to earlier investigations on analogous organic devices, numerous leaves connected in series may raise the voltage. The team deliberately created the live solar cell so that protons in the internal leaf solution may combine at the cathode to make hydrogen gas, which could then be collected and used for other purposes. According to the researchers, their approach could help develop multipurpose, sustainable green energy solutions in the future.

Journal Reference:

  1. Yaniv Shlosberg, Gadi Schuster and Noam Adir. Self-Enclosed Bio-Photoelectrochemical Cell in Succulent Plants. ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces. DOI: 10.1021/acsami.2c15123