The brilliant star at the center of our solar system still has untapped potential.
By finding new ways to harness power from the sun, scientists could turn windows of skyscrapers into solar panels that create electricity — without obstructing views. They could develop biodegradable plastics, cutting down on landfill waste. Bioengineers could even produce plants that flourish in severe environments, from deserts to the Arctic.
The sun, after all, has nearly limitless power: It sends more energy to Earth in an hour and a half than all 7.45 billion humans use in a year. Learning to capture it could change the world as we know it, says Richard Lunt, a Johansen Crosby Endowed Associate Professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “We have the potential to power the whole world with solar energy,” he says.
Lunt is among a team of Michigan State scientists who are building on the university’s legacy of pioneering solutions to global challenges. Amid a growing climate crisis, they’re developing technologies that could help wean people off of fossil fuels, feed the growing global population, protect the environment and create a more sustainable future for generations.
SOLAR POWER BEYOND PANELS
For Lunt, that future starts with a small, transparent pane of glass about the size of a greeting card. It doesn’t seem noteworthy when he holds it in his palm. Expose it to sunlight, though, and his invention reveals a hidden ability: It can turn invisible light into electricity and has the potential to be 21 percent efficient, a rate that would approach the efficiency of traditional solar panels.
The crucial elements to the material, which Lunt calls a “transparent solar cell,” are the small, organic molecules scattered inside. Together, they allow visible light to pass through but capture most frequencies of near infrared light, which are typically impossible for the human eye to see.
By extracting energy from this invisible spectrum, the device opens up a range of possibilities as a building material, Lunt says. If large panels made of these solar cells were installed inside existing windows, every high-rise could become a vertical solar farm generating much of its own energy.
More than just buildings could benefit from the technology. The transparent solar cells could be used to produce energy in an array of devices, Lunt says, from smartphones to electric automobiles. In fact, he’s betting big on it. Lunt is a co-founder of Ubiquitous Energy Inc., which develops and markets the technology. “I think we’re going to start to see applications in the next couple of years,” he says.
AN OLD SPECIES GETS NEW POWERS
The sun’s power could be used to provide more than just electricity. It could also aid in the creation of new biodegradable plastics, says Danny Ducat, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Michigan State University.
While an increasing number of cities and countries have placed bans on disposable plastic items like bags and drinking straws, a future without plastic isn’t likely. But chemistry may hold the answer to more efficient and sustainable ways of making better biodegradables.
To create the ingredients for certain bioplastics, manufacturers grow microbes designed to spit out specific component chemicals — such as biofuel, insulin or the elements of biodegradable plastics — in huge vats. It’s similar to how huge tanks of yeast are used to produce alcohol in the brewing of beer. The resulting chemicals are harvested and used to create a plastic that will degrade naturally.
“What other kinds of microbes can we pair together with the cyanobacteria … so that they can use more solar energy or require less nutrients?”
Keeping all those bacteria alive, however, requires a steady diet of nutrients and sugars, which often come from crops like sugarcane or corn. Instead of feed crops from farm fields, Ducat wants to create those sugars with cyanobacteria, one of the oldest species on Earth. In the wild, cyanobacteria make their own sugars, using energy from the sun, he says.
Rather than letting them keep what they make, Ducat has found a way to tweak the bacteria’s DNA, forcing them to release their sugars. “You could get fivefold or more sugar from cyanobacteria than you would from some of the best feedstocks currently used,” Ducat says. And it doesn’t stop there. He’s also working to create communities of cyanobacteria that could use their newfound sugar-producing power to feed other bacterial species. “[We’re trying to] think a bit more creatively. What other kinds of microbes can we pair together with the cyanobacteria … so that they can use more solar energy or require less nutrients?”
By pairing these cyanobacteria with bacteria used in manufacturing, it’s possible to create a self-contained system that uses far less energy, he says, while also streamlining the production process. That could lead to efficient new ways of producing plastics from a source other than oil, reducing the use of fossil fuels and slowing climate change.
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