Could this be the next green energy technology?

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation

Scientists are making progress in harnessing electricity from algae in what could be a breakthrough in green-energy technology to combat climate change, although mass-market applications are years away, new research suggests.

The technology utilizes the process of photosynthesis by algae, one of the most common microorganisms on earth, according to a Concordia University engineering professor leading the research.

Algae naturally creates electrons during photosynthesis, and metal probes stuck into the plant can capture that energy and transfer it into electricity for batteries, he said on Wednesday.

The new technology has immense potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

“In five years, this will be able to power your smart phone,” Muthukumaran Packirisamy told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To get algae energy to the position where solar energy is today would take more than a decade, he added.

His study, co-written with other Canadian researchers outlining improvements to harvesting electricity from algae, was published on Tuesday in the journal “Technology.”

Comparing the algae technology to the development of power from solar panels, Packirisamy noted that photovoltaic power relies on crystalline silicon that is used in computer chips and is a hazardous material.

Energy from algae would be more environmentally friendly by using fewer dangerous materials, he said.

So far, the new technology looks simple – small gold wires hanging out of green algae in a device about two centimeters, or less than an inch, square.

Packirisamy, who is seeking a patent, said he hopes to improve the technology by designing a larger version which would be necessary to make the process economically viable.

During photosynthesis, algae takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, meaning the technology would have an added benefit of removing emissions from the air along with producing clean energy, Packirisamy said.

Unlike traditional solar power which does not work at night, harvesting energy from algae could be a round-the-clock operation, he said.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Chris Arsenault covers global food security and agricultural politics for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Image: A surfer negotiates piles of seaweed before an early morning surf . REUTERS/Will Burgess.

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