The hunt for artificial leaves and cheap photobiological cells

Artificial leaves, cheap photobiological cells. These are the products which BioSolar Cells will focus on for the next five years, with their € 42 million subsidy. BioSolar Cells, a joint venture involving 34 partners, including Leiden University, is desperately seeking a sustainable way to produce bio-energy and food by means of more efficient photosynthesis.

Pressing problem

The issue of future energy and food production is quickly becoming ever more pressing: in the coming decades, the available supply of fossil fuels will decrease worldwide, the need for protein-rich food will increase and the consequences of climate change will become more tangible. In addition, the world population is increasing daily by some hundreds of thousands of people, as the general level of prosperity is also rising. The result is a fast-growing demand on an ever-decreasing area of agricultural land.

Sustainable energy and food production

The national programme on BioSolar Cells, which involves 9 knowledge institutions and 25 companies, aims in the coming five years to strengthen the scientific basis for the sustainable production of bio-energy and food through a more efficient use of the biological process of photosynthesis. This is the natural system through which plants use sunlight. The programme was awarded € 42 million euro by the Ministry of Economy, Agriculture and Innovation, NWO, a number of universities and other knowledge institutions and the business community.

Low consumption of solar energy

The BioSolar Cells programme consists of approximately fifty projects in which researchers are investigating ways to further develop and use photosynthesis. Sunlight as a source of energy is broadly available worldwide. Green plants have been using sunlight for more than three billion years and they have developed an enormous variation in biological processes during that time. Through the ingenious process of photosynthesis, plants use this energy to produce food from carbon dioxide and water, releasing oxygen. However, plants use no more than 1 to 2% of the solar energy.

Greater efficiency

The researchers in the BioSolar Cells programme want to find a way to increase the efficiency of plants and micro-organisms, as well as deploy artificial systems such as artificial leaves, or a combination of the two approaches. This is done both at the level of plants and cells such as algae and bacteria, and at the level of molecular systems. In this way, they lay the foundation for cheap photobiological cells, such as photovoltaic cells on a silicon basis, which can in a short time produce large amounts of biomass, or even fuels that can be used directly, such as methanol.

(17 June 2011)

Last Modified: 25-01-2012