A Crazy Plan to Power Solar Panels With E. Coli

New biogenic solar cells could be cheaper and more efficient than current solar panels. Here’s how they work.

Solar panels have amazing promise, but serious limitations. They’re expensive to produce and ineffective on cloudy days. What if there were a way to make solar panels cheaper and functional even in places with limited sun? Scientists may have figured out how to do just that, and it relies on bacteria.

But first, let’s talk about how solar energy traditionally works. A solar panel is made up of subunits, called photovoltaic cells. For a PV cell to work, it has to generate an electric current, so each end of the cell is made up either negatively or positively charged material, usually silicon mixed with either phosphorus or boron.

This creates a pre-existing electric field, and when this field gets exposed to photons from the sun, it knocks some electrons loose in the silicon. Other components of the solar cell then organize those free-floating electrons into an electric current that can either be stored or used.