How bacteria might one day power your home

Scientists in Canada have found a way to produce electricity by making solar panels embedded with E. coli.

It works by taking advantage of the bacteria's ability to produce lycopene - the red dye that gives tomatoes their colour is also very good at harvesting light.

The E. coli cells were genetically engineered to produce more lycopene, and coated in minerals that act as a conductor for the electricity they produce.

The result was a solar panel that produces twice as much electricity as previous "biogenic" attempts at making power, at a tenth the cost - and it worked "as efficiently in dim light as in bright light".

It's hoped the breakthrough will boost solar power uptake in places like northern Europe and Canada, where the skies are often cloudy.

"Our solution to a uniquely British Columbia problem is a significant step toward making solar energy more economical," said Vikramaditya Yadav of the University of British Columbia, where the panels were developed.

There's a long way to go however - the hybrid solar panels aren't quite as efficient as traditional solar panels yet. But scientists are optimistic it won't be long until they are.

"These hybrid materials that we are developing can be manufactured economically and sustainably and, with sufficient optimisation, could perform at comparable efficiencies as conventional solar cells," said Prof Yadav.

The next step, he says, is a process that doesn't kill the bacteria in the process so they can produce lycopene, and electricity, indefinitely.

Homes in New Zealand with solar panels are estimated to save about $650 a year on electricity.

While some E. coli strains are harmful, most are not, and according to the Ministry of Health form "an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract".