The most efficient solar power systems on Earth are the plants that surround us, and not the panels we manufacture. With billions of years of evolution to improve the formula, plants have a near perfect energy conversion efficiency, while our solutions struggle to achieve 20% efficiency. This is why many researchers are working to mimic plants for power generation, but those at the University of Georgia decided to just tap into plants and capture some of the electricity they produce.
Photosynthesis is the process plants use to take the energy of sunlight and with it create the sugars that fuel other processes throughout the organism. One of the steps involved separates the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water, which releases electrons that then carry the energy to synthesize the sugars. Structures within the plant cells called thylakoids capture and store the energy from sunlight, and it is these that the researchers have modified to draw energy from. Instead of the electrons flowing as they normally would through the plant, they instead are directed down carbon nanotubes that have been connected to the thylakoids.
When tested, the researchers' design generated one hundred times more energy than similar systems, but as impressive as that is, there is still a lot of work to do. The technology and possibly the plants will need to be optimized before we could see literal 'power plants,' but some low power devices, like remote sensors, may be able to benefit from this research sooner.
Source: University of Georgia