Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have recently made a groundbreaking discovery that could change the way we think about sustainable agriculture. According to their recent study, growing crops under semi-transparent solar cells not only generates electricity, but also promotes plant growth.
The UCLA team had installed organic solar cells on the roofs of greenhouses to observe their effects on crops in a series of experiments. As organic solar cells are made from carbon materials, they can be fashioned into transparent and flexible sheets. However, the organic materials in these cells tend to degrade quickly under sunlight, which posed a challenge for the researchers. To counter this, they added a layer of L-glutathione, which prevented the cells from breaking down.
The tests conducted by the research team showed that the cells with the added layer retained over 84% of their original efficiency, while the efficiency of those without the added layer fell to less than 20% over the same time period. The researchers then placed these cells on a number of greenhouses that were used to grow wheat, mung beans, and broccoli.
The plants and vegetables grown under the organic solar cells thrived. According to the research team, this was likely because the cell’s L-glutathione layer blocked harmful ultraviolet rays and infrared rays that can damage and heat up the greenhouse.
The organic solar cells exhibited an overall power conversion efficiency of 13.5% and allowed 21.5% of visible light to pass through. To their surprise, the team found that the crops grew even better under the organic solar cells than they did under traditional glass roofs.
Yepin Zhao, the lead author of the study, said that the team has now established a startup to produce these organic solar cells commercially. According to Zhao, their discovery has the potential to revolutionize agriculture and could eventually provide a sustainable solution to energy production and food security.
The research has been published in the journal, Nature Sustainability.