Ramaraja Ramasamy, assistant professor in the College of Engineering at University of Georgia and the corresponding author of a paper which described the entire process in the Journal of Energy and Environmental Science, explained that their goal was to harvest cleaner power from sunlight making use of plant-based systems.
In the meanwhile, Phys.org confirms that plants have something to teach scientists about sunlight power, because most of them operate at almost 100% quantum efficiency. In other words, for every photon of sunlight they capture, they produce an equal number of electrons. Compare this to the best solar panels which can only do 12%-17%
So, Ramasamy introduced a method to interrupt photosynthesis in such a way that electrons can be captured before they are used to make sugars. To do so, the researchers need to separate out plant cell thylakoids responsible for capturing and storing energy from sunlight. After this, they manipulate the proteins contained in the thylakoid. Finally, the modified thylakoids are immobilized and stuck on the back of carbon nanotubes. Those work as an electrical conductor to capture the electrons from the plant material and send them along a wire.
The system has already been tested on small-scale experiments and revealed that the results double the efficiency of solar panels. The researchers admit that much more work must be done before their new technology reaches commercialization and keep trying to make it more stable and scalable. However, soon this method might find a use in remote sensors or other portable electronic equipment which doesn’t need much power to run.