How to get electricity from algae: developed at ETU “LETI”


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Researchers from St. Petersburg Electrotechnical University “LETI” have developed a model of biofuel cell for electricity generation using cyanobacteria.

Nowadays, the engineering of environmentally friendly and renewable energy sources is one of the most important problems of humanity. The Engineering Center for Microtechnology and Diagnostics of ETU “LETI” develops miniature energy sources, which use cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) as an alternative energy resource. Researchers believe that these ancient organisms are promising components in energy sources and can be effectively used in biofuel cells.

“We used two strains of cyanobacteria, Anabaena and Synechococcus, which are cultivated in the Resource Center of ETU “LETI,” as bioanalyzer. Cyanobacteria are the oldest large group of prokaryotic (i.e. deprived of nuclei) microorganisms with a bacterial cell structure. They are the only prokaryotes that can use sunlight as energy, water as an electron donor, and air as a carbon source. This is what gave them the botanical name blue-green algae. Their distinctive feature is their capacity for oxygenic photosynthesis, which enabled oxygen to grow on Earth ~2.3 billion years ago. This is the reason for our decision to use these microorganisms, which are widely spread in nature, in development.”

Anna Pudova, Engineer of Engineering Center for Microtechnology and Diagnostics of ETU “LETI”

The developers created and tested a model of a biofuel cell for the photogeneration of electricity based on cyanobacteria. Researchers focused on the design and optimization of nanostructured anodes on which life cells were deposited. They created and tested various types of anodes based on glassy carbon, carbon paper cardboard, carbon felt. Scientists carried out a comparative study of energy production efficiency using different strains of cyanobacteria and found out that developed fuel cell efficiency with Synechococcus was 1.3 times higher than that with Anabaena. Maximum efficiency obtained with hybrid carbon anode and Synechococcus was 183 mW/m2.

“The dependence of the potential difference between the anode and cathode on the light intensity allows us to conclude that this effect occurs in the fuel cell due to the cyanobacteria. For example, during the experiment, when exposed to visible light for 1 hour, the potential increases from 75 to 175 mV and then decreases to 110 mV in the dark after 15 minutes. This shows how cyanobacteria react to light. Tests on various modifications of carbon as an anode have shown that carbon felt is the most suitable material for bioanode, due to its highest specific surface area.”

Anna Pudova, Engineer of Engineering Center for Microtechnology and Diagnostics of ETU “LETI”

Currently, ETU “LETI” researchers are actively working on improving the efficiency of the biofuel cell. The tasks are to improve the cell design, expand the range of materials used for anode production, and find even more effective strains.

The results of the study will allow developing sustainable energy sources based on renewable resources that do not pollute the environment. In addition to generating electricity, cyanobacteria can be used to dispose of carbon dioxide and generate oxygen.

The researchers told about their development in the article titled “Miniature BioFuel Cell For Photogeneration Of Electricity Based On Cyanobacteria,” published in the proceedings of the Conference of Russian Young Researchers in Electrical and Electronic Engineering IEEE 2020.


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