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.