Tiny skyscrapers help bacteria generate electricity from sunlight

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed tiny 3D printed “skyscrapers” for photosynthetic bacteria communities that convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into energy.

By creating networks of high-rise “nano-houses” for these sun-loving bacteria, the team broke new ground.

The Cambridge researchers believe that providing these communities with the right kind of housing increases the amount of energy they can extract by more than an order of magnitude.

Photosynthetic bacteria or cyanobacteria are the most abundant life forms on Earth and need a lot of sunlight to grow, like the surface of a lake in summer. To extract the energy they produce through photosynthesis, bacteria must be attached to electrodes.

There has been a bottleneck in the amount of energy that can actually be extracted from photosynthetic systems, but no one has figured out where the bottleneck was. Most scientists have assumed that the bottleneck is on the biological side, in bacteria, but we have found that a substantial bottleneck is actually on the hardware side.

Dr. Jenny Zhang, Department of Chemistry Yusuf Hamied

researchers Custom electrodes 3D printed from metal oxide nanoparticles adapted to work with cyanobacteria during their photosynthesis. These electrodes were printed as densely packed, highly branched pillar structures, like a small town. The researchers say the electrodes have excellent light-handling properties, like a high-rise apartment with lots of windows.

Cyanobacteria need something to which they can attach themselves and form a community with their neighbors. The electrodes allow a balance between a lot of surface and a lot of light, like a glass skyscraper. Once the cyanobacteria self-assembled in their new home, the team found that they were more efficient than other current bioenergy technologies, such as biofuels.

The system increased the amount of energy extracted by more than an order of magnitude compared to other methods of producing bioenergy from photosynthesis. The researchers were able to extract residual electrons from the bacteria, resulting from photosynthesis, which could be used to power small electronic devices.

I was surprised that we were able to reach the numbers we got: similar numbers have been predicted for many years, but this is the first time they have been proven experimentally. Cyanobacteria are versatile chemical factories. Our approach allows us to take advantage of their energy conversion pathway at an early stage, which helps us understand how they convert energy so that we can use their natural pathways for the production of renewable fuels or chemicals.

Doctor Jenny Zhang

The team’s printing technique also allows control of multiple length scalesmaking structures highly customizable, which could benefit a wide range of industries.

Going through www.cam.ac.uk

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