How Plants Inspire Solar Technology

Categories: News

It’s hard to believe that something as simple as a plant can undergo incredibly complex phases. At school we learned about these processes, but we never really took the time to think how incredible they are. In this case, the complex process is photosynthesis, and till today people cannot mimic it. Of course there are certain aspects that can be replicated, but not in the clean and simple way plants do it. However, the challenge to achieve man-made photosynthesis if you will, seems to be the future of solar power. At the moment everything amounts to making solar power cheaper and cutting out as much waste as possible, which can only be achieved through a plant’s most natural instinct.

Why Photosynthesis is Important for Solar Power

There is still a big problem in terms of affordability regarding the storage of energy. For a quality battery that’s connected to a solar power system you’ll pay around R70 000, and it will last you at least 10 years. But according to scientists, this price needs to come down and the efficiency has to increase. All the elements that keep solar power from becoming the most sought after alternative have to be eliminated, and this can only be done with hydrogen fuel. There also needs to be a change in the materials being used along with the way solar cells function. The bottom line is that solar power has to become readily available to everyone without causing damage or start a new type of waste, while providing electricity for longer periods without direct sunlight.

For this reason scientists have been focusing a great deal of their studies on how plants capture the energy from the sun and break it down so magnificently. Provided that plants do it in smaller quantities than a solar panel does, the quality of the energy is much greater. Just to get back to the basics of photosynthesis, the plant uses the sun’s heat to break water into its two main components, namely hydrogen and oxygen. Now, a hydrogen fuel holds much more energy than petrol. Hydrogen fuel is also much cleaner when it burns. The idea to mimic the photosynthesis process was brought about as early as 1912 by an Italian chemist called Giacomo Ciamician.

The Challenge

Unfortunately it’s hard to see how plants actually do what they do and scientists face some difficult challenges. For example, electrons are knocked out of place when the rays from the sun hits the cell, but it quickly returns to its place. This process is why we need to use solar energy immediately, or capture it in a battery, otherwise the energy is lost. With plants the electron is guided down a path and doesn’t return to its former position, giving the plant the ability to store the energy. Just to be clear, this is a basic way of looking at the problem and it gets a lot more technical, but you get the idea.

At the same time scientists have to mimic photosynthesis with materials that are sustainable and won’t amount to another type of waste. Currently there are scientists all around the world, from the USA to Germany, working on different ways to make this process as accessible as possible, or at least make it part of current solar panel systems. Because if a breakthrough is finally made, another question is brought to the surface. Can this solution be produced on a massive scale?