Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Climate change has been one of the foremost pressing issues throughout this year’s United States presidential election race with good reason. With the recent California wildfires causing billions of dollars in damage along the west coast, we’ve already seen the disastrous effects of climate change first hand in the U.S. — cementing it as an existential threat. Various factors such as heatwaves, lightning strikes, and the drying of vegetation are worsened by global warming. According to the NOAA 2019 Global Climate Summary, temperatures around the world have skyrocketed at an averaged rate of 0.13°F per decade since the end of the 19th century. However, ever since the end of the 20th century, this data has more than doubled, revealing that climate change is increasing at a rapid rate in modern times.
Given that one of the primary catalysts to global warming is greenhouse gases, scientists around the world have been working to mitigate greenhouse gases through clean energy solutions. Photovoltaic cells (PV cells) have been touted as a potential solution to reducing these emissions, which contribute to the greenhouse effect that fuels climate change. Photovoltaic cells are electrical components that generate electricity when exposed to photons, or light particles. PV cells consist of semiconductor material, which combine properties of both metals and insulators. In the U.S., approximately 69 billion kilowatt hours, or 1.8% of the total energy production, is generated using photovoltaic technology as of 2019.
In spite of its potential, photovoltaic technology has been under constant scrutiny as a reliable energy source. One of the most common criticisms of photovoltaic cells is that energy from the sun is intermittent, suggesting that these cells cannot be used as a consistent energy source as they are rendered useless for periods of time. Another significant critique is the high capital costs, or expenses, of photovoltaic cells due to the mandatory inclusion of costly semi-conductors that heighten overall production costs.
However, biophotovoltaics — biological solar cells that generate electricity from the photosynthetic activity of living microorganisms — offset many of the aforementioned disadvantages of photovoltaics and bring additional benefits to the table. Although biophotovoltaics come in many variations, two especially promising examples are ones powered by green fluorescent proteins (GFP) found in jellyfish and cyanobacteria.
Zackary Chiragwandi at the Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, and his colleagues first began developing GFP biophotovoltaic technology in 2010. This breakthrough development was especially promising due to many key features not found in traditional photovoltaic technology. For one, these green fluorescent protein powered cells (GFP cells) do not require the addition of expensive semiconductors such as titanium dioxide cells, unlike current dye-sensitized solar cells called Gratzel cells. As a result, this simplifies design and reduces overall costs. Furthermore, GFP cells, unlike PV cells, do not require an external source of light. They can instead utilize light emitted by a mixture of chemicals such as magnesium and luciferase enzymes.
Although people may have personal reservations against harvesting raw materials from animals, in this case, it may prove to be environmentally beneficial to reduce the jellyfish population in many aquatic habitats. Jellyfish are increasingly overpopulating our oceans and derailing fishing industries. They also raise their respective water bodies’ pH, making it inhabitable for delicate species due to heightened acidity in the water. Utilizing jellyfish to create carbon-neutral energy would benefit humanity by serving as a cost effective, more efficient, and environmentally-safe solution that will restore the balance of the oceans.
Another prominent option in biophotovoltaic technology is cyanobacteria — also referred to as “blue-green algae.” These cyanobacteria-powered solar cells can generate sufficient power to charge cell phone and tablet batteries, as well as other small items that are usually plugged into wall outlets. In addition, these solar cells are capable of being printed using a standard commercial inkjet printer onto paper while still maintaining their photosynthetic capabilities. This allows the traditional liquid reservoir used in BPV cells to be replaced with a gel to form a ‘semi-dry thin-film’ BPV cell; this development presents an intriguing potential for miniaturization, as well as large scale mass production.
Similar to the GFP technology harnessed from jellyfish, cyanobacteria-powered BPV serves as a consistent alternative to traditional photovoltaic technology that is often labeled as unreliable. Cyanobacteria-powered BPV can generate an electric current regardless of exposure — or a lack thereof — to an external source of light. In addition to its potential to be self-produced through printing, BPV leaves a minimal impact on the environment after use due to its biodegradable qualities. Many improvements can be made to both GFP and cyanobacteria-powered BPV in terms of circuit conductivity, large-scale production potential, and high power output. Nonetheless, both options present themselves as viable options for tackling the monster of climate change and carbon emissions in the future.
Through Teen Lenses: “How do you think the issue of climate change and rising carbon emissions should be addressed? Have you heard about biophotovoltaic technology and how it can be used to create carbon neutral energy?”
“The climate crisis is the greatest existential issue to our generation. Without innovative and unique solutions, we won’t be able to make much progress in ensuring the safety of our planet. Thus, I believe the notion of biophotovoltaic technology is actually really interesting. I never knew that we could harness energy from animals, such as jellyfish. Hopefully, progress in this field will allow us to continue to mitigate global climate change before it becomes too damaging to our planet.” Chris Edwards, 16, Junior, McLean High School, Falls Church, VA
“I think its obvious that climate change is a big issue facing the world today, however I do not agree with the idea of a green new deal proposed by many leftists currently. As a Libertarian, I believe that deregulation is the answer and that a cleaner earth can be achieved in free-market capitalism. I am intrigued regarding biophotovoltaic technology, but companies shouldn’t be mandated to pursue it; there are definitely some concerns related to profitability for them in that field.” Aditya Agarwal, 15, Sophomore, Chantilly High School, Chantilly, VA
“In today’s world, dirty fossil fuel energy unfortunately consumes the majority of the energy economy around the world. However, it is because of this dirty energy and the profit-seeking fossil fuel corporations that perpetuate global climate change. I definitely believe that biophotovoltaic technology is a feasible alternative in order to mitigate this issue and create carbon neutral energy. I think it is a really innovative and sophisticated form of energy that could definitely make an impact throughout the next generations, especially as technology continues to progress.” Jonathon Grant, 16, Junior, Thomas Edison High School, Alexandria, Virginia
“I actually had no idea technology like this existed. The concept that organisms like jellyfish and even bacteria could actually serve as an effective source of energy in today’s era where countries around the world should be working to find clean energy sources, is mind-blowing. Honestly, this gives me a lot of hope for the future of our planet because I know that as technology continues to progress over the generations, scientists will continue to find groundbreaking and unique solutions to the climate crisis that we never considered before. I am excited to see biophotovoltaic technology become more prevalent in the modern energy economy as we continue to fabricate solutions to climate change.” Arnav Khan, 16, Sophomore, Hayfield High School, Alexandria, Virginia