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Growing greenhouse algae under a new solar panel design

August 7, 2013
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

On this luminescent solar concentrator prepared in Sue Carter's lab, the photovoltaic cells have been left off one edge so that the luminescent light can be seen.

On this luminescent solar concentrator prepared in Sue Carter’s lab, the photovoltaic cells have been left off one edge so that the luminescent light can be seen. Photo: S. Carter.

GianCarlo Onorati writes in SantaCruz.com that a team of scientists from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) are exploring the cultivation of algae in a self-sustaining greenhouse system using a new generation of solar panels that adjustably trap part of the sun’s light to produce electricity. The other part passes through, nourishing the algae as well as the other growing plants underneath. The UCSC team hopes to influence the solar industry in a new direction with its twist on solar panels – Wavelength Selective Photovoltaic Systems, or WSPVs.

It began in a physics lab on the UCSC campus. Physics professor Sue Carter works with Luminescent Solar Collectors. These special panels use pigments to absorb sunlight. Like a glow-stick on steroids, a fantastically vibrant pink-orange color explodes from the panels as soon as sunlight touches them. The pigment, scattered throughout the collectors, traps incoming light energy and guides it to electricity generators.

The key to this innovative form of solar energy is that physicists can control the wavelength of light that the pigment traps. “I started looking closer and closer at the spectrum of luminescent materials,” said Carter. “I realized that the most efficient color nearly aligned with what plants wouldn’t need.”

Sue Carter, professor of physics at UCSC, is working to develop cheaper and more efficient solar cells to improve greenhouse efficiency.

Sue Carter, professor of physics at UCSC, is working to develop cheaper and more efficient solar cells to improve greenhouse efficiency. Photo: R.R. Jones.

“Different species of plants respond differently to the changing light environment,” says environmental studies professor Michael Loik, a photosynthesis expert at UCSC. “Lettuce and spinach, for example, are unaffected by the altered light. Unfortunately, in recent tests, strawberries seemed to dislike the light under the panels.”

“We can’t solve every puzzle,” says Carter. “But we can get a good idea on how to proceed forward and how species interact in different environments. This will help make better greenhouses for those plants.”

Beyond these common garden plants in Loik’s projects, Carter also works with microalgae to see how they grow under LR305 panels. “Algae are some of the main materials being considered for next generation biofuels, because they have much greater power output per acre than any other biomaterial,” Carter says.

Growing large quantities of algae are tricky. They are difficult to grow outside because they easily get contaminated. One remedy is to grow algae in greenhouses, which protect them from foreign particles in the air, but this is expensive. Carter’s panels cost less in materials, and by yielding power they lower the overall energy costs.

These qualities piqued the interest of microbial biologist Leslie Bebout from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. Bebout studies algae and their potential cultivation in outer space for future long-term missions. “I am very enthusiastic about the WSPVs,” Bebout says. “They are a smart and elegant solution to the challenges facing crop production in California, and we hope for algae also.”

Bebout is eager to see WSPV technology mature for our descendants to use in space or on the moon. There, she says, “the largest source of free energy is sunlight.”

Carter and Bebout met at a coffee shop in Felton to discuss applying WSPVs to research on algae and energy production. Bebout admits that growing algae in space is still beyond the horizon, but she believes today’s studies can set the stage. In her own research, Bebout showed how well algae grew under the altered light of Carter’s panels.

“For five different commercial strains of algae, [with] the WSPVs selectively taking a full one-third of the incoming sunlight, the cells perform just as well, if not better than in full sunlight,” she said. “If this technology for algae can go up in scale, it could be a real game-changer.”

Carter’s team recognizes this potential, too. Carter protects her algae in a distinctly un-green greenhouse in the New Zealand Garden at UCSC’s famed Arboretum. The shocking orange structure, in stark contrast to the various exotic trees, reveals that this building uses WSPVs to sustain itself.

“All the fans and the electronic instruments for monitoring conditions and entering data are powered by electricity that the greenhouse generates itself,” Loik says. The algae inside stay cozy and safe, and maintaining their greenhouse is becoming more economical.

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