Bacteria and nanowires capture solar energy

01 June 2020

A new hybrid system could have use in deep space as well as addressing climate change.

1 June 2020

A hybrid system of bacteria and nanowires has been successfully used to capture energy from sunlight and  convert carbon dioxide and water into organic molecules and oxygen.

This biohybrid, researchers say, has potential to be used as a way to manufacture oxygen and other molecules on deep space missions. The work is a result of ongoing research from University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which had previously described how the bacteria Sporomusa ovata when  packed into a ‘forest’ of silicon nanowires could use solar energy, in a process similar to photosynthesis, to produce acetate.

The researchers said ‘These silicon nanowires are essentially like antenna. They capture the solar photon just like a solar panel.  Within these silicon nanowires, they will generate electrons and feed them to the bacteria, which absorb the carbon dioxide and [produce] acetate. The oxygen is a side-benefit.’

The team has found that maintaining the acidity of the system improves efficiency. As acetate is produced, the bacteria decrease the acidity of the surrounding water. By counteracting the rising pH, the researchers are able able to increase the amount of bacteria that they pack into the nanowire ‘forest’.

As well as the potential for use during  space missions, these biohybrids could also help address climate change. The team is now looking at how to embed quantum dots into the membranes of the bacteria, which would act as solar panels, meaning that nanowires would not be necessary. They are also investigating  techniques for genetically engineering the bacteria so that they can produce other molecules such as acetic acid.

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