Research in Focus: Biological Photovoltaics and Sustainability
As part of #BiofilmWeek, we’re highlighting interesting and exciting biofilm research being undertaken across our NBIC partner research institutions by early career researchers, PhD students and our Interdisciplinary Research Fellows.
We interviewed Maira Anam, a PhD student from the University of Nottingham, to learn about her work surrounding biological photovoltaics.
What is the title of your current research project or your primary area of biofilm research?
My research title is, Advanced 3-dimensional anode structure for improved biological photovoltaic system operation. Biological photovoltaic is basically bio electrochemical system which use microbial biofilms to generate electricity, waste water treatment and have a very broad spectrum of applications, but I am primarily focusing on bio energy.
My PhD is funded by a Faculty of Engineering Research and Excellence Scholarship from the University of Nottingham. Different departments within the University of Nottingham are working together including, the Centre for Additive Manufacturing and the Food, Water Waste Research Group.
What industry or sector does this research relate to?
Biological photovoltaic system basically relates to bio energy and waste water treatment. Being a bio electrical chemical system, they have numerous functions in bioremediation, bio sensing and bio synthesis. My group’s project focuses mainly around waste water treatment and the bio energy industry.
What is the current market position or situation within this sector?
According to the Globe News website, the market for microbial fuel cells is forecast to reach $19.5m by 2026. Scientists in Washington State University and the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center, in collaboration with Pennsylvania State, are conducting field test of a 300 L microbial fuel cells for their waste water treatment plants.
What current unmet need(s) does this research address? How does it aim to benefit and impact on the public and/or private sectors?
At the moment, efficiency of Biological photovoltaic system in transducing light energy to electricity is generally quite lower and experimental efforts are required to overcome the limitations of light delivery, stability of anodic culture and activation losses. So different scientists around the world are brainstorming to come up with different ideas to enhance electricity. With our work, we are trying to get some electrically conductive and transparent anodes. We hope that these would greatly improve the efficiency of the Biological photovoltaic system. Also in the long term, Biological photovoltaic system-based solar panels could be developed. But a great deal of research is required in order to develop bio photovoltaics into a commercially viable technology.
What other emerging economic and societal impact(s) could the project have? and what challenges will you need to/have you overcome to achieve impact?
The establishment of the Biological photovoltaic system would have a huge impact in the favour of self-sustainable green energy, which is ultimately the dream, I think, considering the shortage of energy and over reliance on fossil fuels. However, the majority of the Biological photovoltaic systems are in the lab scale.
Biophotovoltaic system assembled with carbon cloth as anode and cathode.
Growth of wild-type Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 cells in BG-11 medium supplemented with sodium bicarbonate as carbon source.
Surface morphology of the inkjet printed poly (3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) polystyrene sulfonate (PEDOT: PSS) square (size: 1 x 1 mm) obtained using optical microscopy (5x magnification). As the printhead moves horizontally over substrate film (PET here) from left to right dispensing ink droplets, layer thickness increases due to jetting of more droplet in the right corner. Thin-film interference on PEDOT:PSS layer indicate the changes in thickness within the morphology of printed pattern.
What other research is taking place in this field?
Different scientists are working to develop the Biological photovoltaic system voltage output. They are working with genetic engineering, trying to understand the molecular mechanism of how a microbial cell is transferring its electron to an anode. There is also research taking place with electron transporting inhibitors to pin point all of these things that are involved in the electron transfer chain toward an anode. Finally, optimising different system variables, such as growth conditions, efficiency of the photosynthetic organisms, efficiency of the proton exchange membrane, and anode material properties and design, which is also something we are trying to do.
Have any key milestones been completed or targets achieved?
So far, we have been able to print our electrode and try to test its bio-compatibility with microbes, i.e., whether they are suitable to support microbial growth or not. We are in the process of running a Biological photovoltaic system to record voltage output with these novel anode material which we have printed.
Take a look at Maira’s recent publication, ‘Evaluation of photoanode materials used in biophotovoltaic systems for renewable energy generation’.
Find out more
If you are interested in learning more about this project and would like to connect with Maira please contact NBIC at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maira Anam, PhD student with the University of Nottingham