One of the main drawbacks of solar power generation is that it can be too expensive for people to afford, as in this type of energy the current cost of the raw materials needed to manufacture photovoltaic cells is pricey. Now, reading like a sci-fi novel researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have released a new study that shows that organic materials can be used to conduct electricity and emit different colours of light.
They have managed to stimulate bacterial cells to produce biofilms that can incorporate non-living materials, such as gold nanoparticles and quantum dots. These ‘living materials’ combine the advantages of live cells, which respond to their environment, produce complex biological molecules and span multiple length scales, with the benefits of inorganic materials, which add functions such as conducting electricity or emitting light. The scientists behind this study believe the new materials could one day be used to design more complex devices such as solar cells, self-healing materials or diagnostic sensors.
The lead author, Timothy Lu explains that we can see that biology has done a great job of designing unique materials. Yet in our everyday lives, we use materials that aren’t alive in any way. These plastics need lots of energy to make and use. Therefore, the aim is to find a way to engineer living cells so we can make them into materials that we might not find naturally. Lu’s team used E. coli, which naturally produces biofilm, which are communities of bacteria like the plaque on our teeth that grow to cover a surface. Bacteria in biofilms have unique ways of organising and communicating with each other to survive, which is a quality the researchers found attractive for producing new materials.
The scientists on this project see why there’s no reason to use photosynthetic cells in the future and then we would just stick things in the sun and grow all the material we want. The idea to put the living and the non-living worlds together to make hybrid materials that have living cells in them and are functional, is an interesting one. It’s a clever way of thinking about materials synthesis, which is very different from what people normally do, which is usually a top-down approach.
The MIT team’s research has enormous potential for the energy field. The hybrid materials could be worth exploring for use in energy applications such as batteries and solar cells. This is really fantastic innovative work that represents a great integration of synthetic biology and materials engineering.
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