Alternative Energy

Alternative Energy

Alternative energy news, and information about renewable energy technologies.

Feb 09

Solar Cells from Tobacco Plants May Be a Reality Soon

Posted in Biofuels | Photovoltaic Cells | Solar Power

Tobacco Plants As the world continues its quest to use less fossil fuels, the latest possible solution comes from the most unlikely of sources: the tobacco plant. This latest news comes from the University of California, Berkeley. It will be nice to see tobacco used for something other than lung cancer. This new discovery is based on the possibility of literally programming the cells of the plants to get solar cells from tobacco plants. The science behind it is actually pretty simple (at least in explanation form) and pretty amazing. By using a genetically engineered virus, scientists were able to literally transform the cells of the plants to create synthetic solar cells.

Instead of creating some new form of tobacco plant, they are actually applying their chemistry to full grown tobacco plants. Their custom-made virus is sprayed on the plants and then it is time to sit back and let it work its magic. The virus infects a cell which then enables the virus to spread just as any other virus would. As the infected cells form, they are creating artificial chromophores that make high powered electrons out of light.

Of course, the plants themselves are not used for direct solar energy as they still have to be harvested. Once harvested, the structures are extracted and put into a liquid solution to dissolve. This solution is then applied to plastics or glass and poof, solar cells from tobacco plants is a reality. While the whole process may seem a little off the wall, if this process can be refined and work in mass form, it totally changes solar energy as we know it.

While this technology is exciting, the effect that it could have on an economy that seems to continue to go backwards is even more incredible. One of the hardest hit industries during the last decade has been the farming industry. Farmers have been struggling with their crops and tight times have not made things easier. An influx into the tobacco industry to create solar cells from tobacco plants could be a nice boost in the arm as farmers who are waiting for the bank to come and take their land will now have a viable way out.

These cells would not be expected to last as long as “typical” solar cells, but they would probably be much less expensive. That being the case, solar cells from tobacco leaves could provide both an organic way to produce solar cells and the economic boost that the farming industry needs.

  • Jon Rennie

    Very interesting post. We are surrounded by tobacco fields here in eastern NC. Who knew we were the next alternative energy solution!

  • Jason

    I’m probably being paranoid here, but this kinda stuff scares the daylights out of me. Viruses spread and mutate as they do, and this virus does some strange things.

    I’m no scientist, and I won’t speculate on exactly what could go wrong here. I just suggest that unintended consequences should be thoroughly examined before really deploying this technology.

  • Mido A. Moneim

    The idea is great if it’s true. However, I’m of the same opinion as Jason. I just scrolled to the comment section having one thing in mind; those who will do the spraying and others who will apply the resultant product on the intended surfaces will have this virus in their bodies whatever the precautions are, let alone spreading that virus in the atmosphere.

    This creates a persisting moral as well as scientific request to the involved scientists: Before you go after the plant, your GM virus must be subjected to a long term testing and verification of its nature, if only because playing God in genetic manipulation of viruses would most probably result in catastrophe.

    I’m not pessimistic, but that sounds familiar with the Aids virus.

  • Jennifer

    This sounds like something straight out of science fiction, virus included. It’s an intriguing idea, but I agree with Jason that the implications should be thoroughly investigated and thought out before it goes into mass production. Otherwise, as with GM crops, we run the risk of performing pretty radical experiments on ourselves and our world.

  • Konstantin

    First, this is interesting that humans have finally found a way to harvest electricity from plants.

    Secondly, using a virus to accomplish this is completely NOT SAFE, just by the very definition of it.

    Thirdly, obviously this article was written by a person who does not see value in tobacco plants except cigarettes. FYI, tobacco is a sacred plant and has been used by the native inhabitants for a very long time. It causes cancer only due to its misuse.

    And finally, I wish scientists who are working on this project would consult with indigenous users of this plant to come up with better alternatives than what’s been described in this article.

    Thank you.

  • Gary

    Interesting comments. The intent of the article is generating power from a tobacco plant, yet most of the comments are about genetic manipulation, playing god, or sacred usage. Give me a break!
    1. How many billions of viruses live the world today?
    2. just exactly how was god being played?
    3. Sacred use of a plant is fine, but are you saying tobacco plants can’t be used for this activity, or can it only be used for smoking?
    4. How do we know precautions were NOT taken?

    Very interesting indeed.

  • jota

    That’s interesting, but that should take time for testing. Viruses despite they come to light naturally or created artificially, they are dangerous and always will. So to create one artificial.. scientist should be very confident of what they are doing despite the fact that such virus can create a LOT of energy. What for that energy will be needed when the population disappears due to mutation of those viruses?

  • bill39

    Using the tobacco plant for solar cells sounds like a good idea, but the USDA is sure to get their cut of the profits so it may not be as cost effective as one thinks. It may benefit us all to use every source of alternative energy that we can come up with.

  • ron

    It is too late to worry about the long term environmental problems that the virus could cause as it has been in the open & spread already. Very unlikely to do more damage than the plant has done to the people world via cigarette smoking. Time for it to help us.

  • Duda

    The word “virus” should not immediately make people paranoid about such a good thing. A virus simply does job, it’s like a program on a computer. We are programming these plants to reform their cells so that the liquid harvested after can convert solar light to energy on other objects. Now, what i care more about is what is the efficiency of cells made from this material and a better idea of how long they will last. silicon solar cells don’t last too long, they hit 50% efficiency after only 10 years. It’s hard to do worse than them.

  • David

    To all the skeptics out there, I just want to inform you that the most sophisticated biotoechnology labs, such as the one at UC Berkeley mentioned in this article, have a department tasked with the job of coming up with contingencies for the risks associated with such projects.

    The ‘human practice’ issues, as they are called, cover the likelihood of each negative consequence, and what to do in case of such an occurrence (the government is on board here as well). I used to work for this very department in the Berkeley Biotechnology labs, and let me assure you that the risk of a virus mutating and becoming harmful is always assessed, and has an astronomically low chance (I’m talking one-in-a-trillion) chance of happening.

    In the case of such an event, it wouldn’t be all that difficult to contain or neutralize the mutant virus either. It’s possible, and common practice, to put a kill-safe measure into these viruses so that they will destroy themselves under specific (or general) circumstances.

    Duda is correct; these viruses are just programmed cells that do a specific task to a specific type of cell in a specific organism, and are much more akin to a nano-sized computer than some science fiction horror plot.

  • Konstantin

    Quote: ‘The virus infects a cell which then enables the virus to spread just as any other virus would.’

    Thank you for your assurance post, David. It helps to know that somewhere there is a lab with a group of scientists that has a contingency plan. The use of nano-technology for this purpose is also interesting. I just think that before releasing a news story with a hidden ‘VIRUS’ in it and think it’s gonna fly is a bit naive, given all the science fiction movies clearly demonstrating possible outcomes..

    I also think an article like that should come with a clear description of the technology involved, possible risks, contingency plans, institutional ownership/responsibility for the project, etc.. Testing should also be performed in authentic agreement with local inhabitants so they understand and agree to the possible risks involved and what’s in it for them in case this project is a success.

    One question, why specifically tobacco plants were chosen for this project?

    Thank you.

  • kris

    How come the tobacco plant is used? Can other autotophs be used as well?

  • prass

    I am scared of the idea to using a virus to manipulate a plant. What if the virus mutates and starts acting on all plants? How much knowledge and ability do we have to control the behavior of known viruses?

  • Nick

    See: Energy From Electrogenic Grass Plants. Why go through all of the faming process? And I agree that a virus is probably an unstable form. I genetically stabilized plant that self-replicates and self-organizes could be better. However, this may be another solution to the Electric Grass problem. Research is currently being done to genetically program plant cells to become electrocyte cells by Professor Michael Sussman at UW Madison Biotechnology Center. This concept, minus the viral spray, could be directly engineered into a plant that is not a crop and needs not be harvested, at least as a booster for an electric organ. It looks as if something like electrogenic grass is shaping up pretty quickly. I will take years of research to determine which method is better, or a combination of the two methods might be even more efficient. Perhaps these solar cell compounds could be used to boost electrical gradients at the mitochondria so as to boost the production of ATP for use by an electric organ. That sounds right.

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