Researchers at the Universities of Birmingham and Utrecht hope that by studying ocean-dwelling fluorescent microalgae they could find the key to build the next generation of super-efficient organic solar cells.

It’s thought that microalgae are some of the oldest examples of living organisms on our planet. They rely on energy from sunlight and after billions of years of evolution their light harvesting mechanisms are up to 95 per cent efficient.

We have much to learn and it is hoped that by studying how this system works, we could get clues about how a new type of efficient organic solar panel could be built. Because of the complexity of the organisms and the huge variety of different species progress in this research field has been limited.
Fluorescent microalgae in the lab. Image: University of Birmingham.

Mass spectrometry unlocks the secrets

The team are using mass spectrometry to characterize individual components of the algae’s light-harvesting system. This approach has revealed details of distinct modules of the system that have never been documented before. The fine level of detail will help us understand why microalgae are so efficient at light harvesting.

Aneika Leney, of the School of Biosciences, at the University of Birmingham, is a lead author on the study, published in the Cell Press journal Chem. She said "Microalgae are fascinating organisms that can do things so much better than systems designed by engineers, by applying this knowledge; we can start to make real progress towards adapting these systems for use in solar panels."

Professor Albert Heck, Scientific Director of the Netherlands Proteomics Centre, Utrecht University, added: "when you see algae, they look slimy and not at all interesting. When you look into the molecular details of their mechanisms that can convert sunlight into energy so efficiently, you think these are way more sophisticated than the most complex Swiss watch. This is the product of 3 billion years of fine-tuning, called evolution."

The next step for the team will be to study in more detail how energy is transferred through these light-harvesting systems and identify why the modules are so efficient. Dr Leney went on to say "With most solar panels on the UK homes operating at 10-20% efficiency, increasing this efficiency to 95% will dramatically increase the use of solar power technology and in doing so help protect the environment".