A synthesized foam, inspired by the Tungara frog (Engystomops pustulosus), which creates long-lasting foam nests to protect its tadpoles, containing all enzymes necessary to complete synthesized photosynthesis, can convert 96% of all sunlight which falls on it into sugars.

Tungara Frog Foam Nest. Click image for the largest view.

Dr David Wendell, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at the University of Cincinnati, won the grand prize at the 2010 Earth Awards and received the $50,000 award for developing the foam with Dr Carlo Montemagno, dean of the university’s college of engineering and applied science.

96% efficiency is far higher than any other solar collection technology.  Since farming has been part of human food production, farmers have been trying to find ways to get more food energy production from the sun with plant selection.  In natural photosynthesis, plants take in solar energy and carbon dioxide and then convert it to oxygen and sugars. The oxygen is released to the air and the sugars are dispersed throughout the plant. But photosynthesis’ allocation of light energy into products we use is not so efficient as modern productivity demands.

The research team is using a foam housing design that’s based on the very long lived foam nests for developing tadpoles of a the semi-tropical frog and then adds plant, bacterial, frog and fungal enzymes that together produce sugar and oxygen.  The foam was chosen because it can effectively concentrate the reactants but allow very good light and air penetration.

Dr Wendell explains, “The advantage for our system compared to plants and algae is that all of the captured solar energy is converted to sugars, whereas these organisms must divert a great deal of energy to other functions to maintain life and reproduce. Our foam also uses no soil, so food production would not be interrupted, and it can be used in highly enriched carbon dioxide environments, like the exhaust from coal-burning power plants, unlike many natural photosynthetic systems.”

That is another plus, “In natural plant systems, too much carbon dioxide shuts down photosynthesis, but ours does not have this limitation due to the bacterial-based photo-capture strategy,” Wendell adds.  That could apply to carbon capture efforts.

Wendell offers other benefits to being able to create a plant-like foam, “You can convert the sugars into many different things, including ethanol and other biofuels. And it removes carbon dioxide from the air, but maintains current arable land for food production.”

Dean Montemagno adds, “This new technology establishes an economical way of harnessing the physiology of living systems by creating a new generation of functional materials that intrinsically incorporates life processes into its structure. Specifically in this work it presents a new pathway of harvesting solar energy to produce either oil or food with efficiencies that exceed other biosolar production methodologies. More broadly it establishes a mechanism for incorporating the functionality found in living systems into systems that we engineer and build.”

If the lab work can get to market anywhere near the efficiencies seen to date everything from sugarcane to algae has a very tough new competitor.

The next step for the team will be to try to make the technology feasible for large-scale applications like carbon capture at coal-burning power plants.  Wendell explains, “This involves developing a strategy to extract both the lipid shell of the algae used for biodiesel and the cytoplasmic contents of the guts, and reusing these proteins in the foam. We are also looking into other short carbon molecules we can make by altering the enzyme cocktail in the foam.”

Because a foam nest is a non-living thing it can convert all the sunlight it receives into sugar without the other life-related activities like respiration, digestion, reproduction, growth and excretion.  The foam the team developed allows air to very easily enter the foamy material. Another advantage is team is able to concentrate the reactants inside the foam. The foam can effectively concentrate the reactants and allows very good amount of light penetration.

The question not yet answered is how the sugar product is extracted. Just how the product is excreted or if the foam is destroyed during extraction is a question of some significance for the processing plan.

The lab functional idea is a milestone to a breakthrough.  The award should be one of many.  Getting past 90% efficiency changes the land use calculation by nearly an order of magnitude.  Cheap enough as a commercial process, transport fuels would have a major competitor as time brings better development and increasing scale.

The news didn’t seem to crack into the wider field, but it should have.  If the team can get a full process demo from making foam and the ingredients to sugar out with a cost estimate maybe the world will take more notice.  That is news to look forward to.


14 Comments so far

  1. Yauze.com on October 8, 2010 9:09 AM

    New Species Discovered: Conservation International Researchers Find Hundreds Of Undocumented Creatures In Papua New Guinea (PHOTOS)…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  2. Nerf Products - Are Their Projectiles Safe? | Product Guide Reviews on October 8, 2010 4:14 PM

    […] Maximum Solar Cell Efficiency With Frog Foam | New Energy and Fuel […]

  3. Kaley Caccamise on October 13, 2010 5:42 PM

    I am normally not one to submit my opinion on people’s articles, but for your article I just needed to do it. I’ve been searching through your blog a lot nowadays and I am super impressed, I think you could really emerge as a main voices for your market. Not sure what your schedule is like in life, but if you started devoting more time to writing here, I’d guess you would start seeing a bunch of traffic soon. With affiliate stuff, it could emerge as a nice reserve revenue source. Just a concept to think about. Good luck!

  4. World Wide News Flash on October 27, 2010 5:20 PM

    Maximum Solar Cell Efficiency With Frog Foam | New Energy and Fuel…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  5. medical coding on November 8, 2010 4:41 AM

    Do you people have a facebook fan page? I looked for one on twitter but could not discover one, I would really like to become a fan!

  6. Sidney Mackeen on May 24, 2011 7:24 PM

    I’ve been checking your blog for a while now, seems like everyday I learn something new 🙂 Thanks

  7. Matilde Ysaguirre on August 28, 2011 10:18 AM

    Hello, this is my first time i visit here. I found so many interesting in your blog especially on how to determine the topic. keep up the good work.

  8. Mildred Coffey on September 5, 2011 5:03 AM

    Of course, what a great site and informative posts, I will add backlink – bookmark this site? Regards, Reader

  9. Micheal Muramoto on September 6, 2011 7:31 PM

    This post makes a lot of sense !

  10. Haywood Rochin on September 13, 2011 5:39 PM

    Thanks for posting. Good to see that not everyone is using RSS feeds to build their blogs 😉

  11. Isreal Goon on September 18, 2011 7:58 PM

    Good! Thank you! I always wanted to write in my site something like that. Can I take part of your post to my blog?

  12. Alejandro Booe on October 10, 2011 11:16 AM

    I REALLY liked your post and blog! It took me a minute bit to find your site…but I bookmarked it. Would you mind if I posted a link back to your post?

  13. window cleaner gold coast on January 12, 2012 9:05 PM

    Nice posts and nice site. Great post man! Continue the good work!

  14. Lionell Griffith on March 22, 2012 1:14 AM

    Wake me up when they have an actual industrial grade process generating fuel at or below the free market price for fossil fuels in quantities sufficient to make a real difference without government loans, grants, subsidies, and the like. Until that point, it is nothing but rather bad science fiction.

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind