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Gizmorama - January 15, 2018

Good Morning,

Forget about things being gas-powered. How would you feel about the world becoming algae-powered? Engineers are making improves to make this a reality.

Learn about this and more interesting stories from the scientific community in today's issue.

Until Next Time,

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*-- Engineers unveil improved algae-powered fuel cell --*

Researchers at Cambridge University in England have designed an improved algae-powered fuel cell. The technology is five time more efficient than current plant-powered models.

The new fuel cell is a type of biophotovoltaic, or BPV, a solar cell that uses biological mechanisms to convert solar energy into electricity. The photosynthetic abilities of microorganisms like algae can be used to harness the power of the sun.

Inside the biophotovoltaics, or biological solar-cells, the algae converts sunlight into electrons which are funneled out of the cell in the form an electric current. Current BPVs locate the entirety of the operation inside a single device.

The latest technology -- described this week in the journal Nature Energy -- features two chambers. One chamber contains the conversion of sunlight into electrons, and a second features the conversion of electrons into electric power.

"Charging and power delivery often have conflicting requirements," Cambridge chemist Kadi Liis Saar said in a news release. "For example, the charging unit needs to be exposed to sunlight to allow efficient charging, whereas the power delivery part does not require exposure to light but should be effective at converting the electrons to current with minimal losses."

By bifurcating the process, researchers we able to focus on each conversion separately and make each component more efficient.

"Separating out charging and power delivery meant we were able to enhance the performance of the power delivery unit through miniaturization," said Tuomas Knowles, a professor of chemistry at Cambridge. "At miniature scales, fluids behave very differently, enabling us to design cells that are more efficient, with lower internal resistance and decreased electrical losses."

Researchers improved the first component by engineering more efficient algae. The new algae cells dissipate less energy during photosynthesis.

Though five times more efficient than previous models, the new technology is still significantly less powerful than traditional solar cells. However, the new BPV model has other advantages, including lower production costs.

"While conventional silicon-based solar cells are more efficient than algae-powered cells in the fraction of the sun's energy they turn to electrical energy, there are attractive possibilities with other types of materials," said Christopher Howe, a professor of biochemistry at Cambridge. "In particular, because algae grow and divide naturally, systems based on them may require less energy investment and can be produced in a decentralized fashion."

By separating the cell into two components, solar energy converted into electricity by microorganisms can be more easily stored -- as opposed to being used immediately.

Researchers suggest the technology could prove particularly useful in rural locations and in less developed countries where power grids are nonexistent.

"This a big step forward in the search for alternative, greener fuels," said researcher Paolo Bombelli, from the Department of Biochemistry. "We believe these developments will bring algal-based systems closer to practical implementation."

*-- DNA tests reveal plant species thought to be extinct --*

With the help of DNA testing, researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis have rediscovered a plant species thought to be extinct.

Dracaena umbraculifera was initially described in 1797. It was believed to be native to Mauritius, a small island in the Indian Ocean, 1,200 miles from the coast of southern Africa. After multiple attempts to locate the species on Mauritius, botanists declared the species extinct.

Despite the declaration, D. umbraculifera continued to be cultivated at botanical gardens around the world.

Researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden set out to determine where the species truly originated and whether the species really was extinct in the wild. Scientists began by sequencing the species genome and comparing it to its closest relatives. Their analysis showed D. umbraculifera is more closely related to Dracaena reflexa, a plant species found in Madagascar, than similar species from Mauritius.

The new genetic data inspired a renewed search for the species on Madagascar, another African island in the Indian Ocean, west of Mauritius. Botanists there located five wild populations of the species.

Researchers say their work -- published this week in the journal Oryx -- highlights the importance of documenting the plant and animal species of Madagascar and other islands of the western Indian Ocean.

Almost 90 percent of the plant species found on Madagascar are endemic, meaning they're found nowhere else. But many are endangered as a result of deforestation.

Scientists hope additional research will inspire more vigorous conservation efforts on the island.

"This project is a great example of how DNA analysis can be used to both bring new value to botanical garden collections and to make new discoveries," Christine Edwards, a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden, said in a news release. "It is particularly exciting because it is rare to have the opportunity to rediscover a species that hasn't been seen in the wild for 200 years."


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