Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Solar power goes viral

MIT researchers use genetically modified virus to produce structures that improve solar-cell efficiency by nearly one-third.

Researchers at MIT have found a way to make significant improvements to the power-conversion efficiency of solar cells by enlisting the services of tiny viruses to perform detailed assembly work at the microscopic level.

In a solar cell, sunlight hits a light-harvesting material, causing it to release electrons that can be harnessed to produce an electric current. The new MIT research, published online this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, is based on findings that carbon nanotubes — microscopic, hollow cylinders of pure carbon — can enhance the efficiency of electron collection from a solar cell's surface.

Previous attempts to use the nanotubes, however, had been thwarted by two problems. First, the making of carbon nanotubes generally produces a mix of two types, some of which act as semiconductors (sometimes allowing an electric current to flow, sometimes not) or metals (which act like wires, allowing current to flow easily). The new research, for the first time, showed that the effects of these two types tend to be different, because the semiconducting nanotubes can enhance the performance of solar cells, but the metallic ones have the opposite effect. Second, nanotubes tend to clump together, which reduces their effectiveness.

And that’s where viruses come to the rescue. Graduate students Xiangnan Dang and Hyunjung Yi — working with Angela Belcher, the W. M. Keck Professor of Energy, and several other researchers — found that a genetically engineered version of a virus called M13, which normally infects bacteria, can be used to control the arrangement of the nanotubes on a surface, keeping the tubes separate so they can’t short out the circuits, and keeping the tubes apart so they don’t clump.

The system the researchers tested used a type of solar cell known as dye-sensitized solar cells, a lightweight and inexpensive type where the active layer is composed of titanium dioxide, rather than the silicon used in conventional solar cells. But the same technique could be applied to other types as well, including quantum-dot and organic solar cells, the researchers say. In their tests, adding the virus-built structures enhanced the power conversion efficiency to 10.6 percent from 8 percent — almost a one-third improvement.

This dramatic improvement takes place even though the viruses and the nanotubes make up only 0.1 percent by weight of the finished cell. “A little biology goes a long way,” Belcher says. With further work, the researchers think they can ramp up the efficiency even further.

The viruses are used to help improve one particular step in the process of converting sunlight to electricity. In a solar cell, the first step is for the energy of the light to knock electrons loose from the solar-cell material (usually silicon); then, those electrons need to be funneled toward a collector, from which they can form a current that flows to charge a battery or power a device. After that, they return to the original material, where the cycle can start again. The new system is intended to enhance the efficiency of the second step, helping the electrons find their way: Adding the carbon nanotubes to the cell “provides a more direct path to the current collector,” Belcher says.

The viruses actually perform two different functions in this process. First, they possess short proteins called peptides that can bind tightly to the carbon nanotubes, holding them in place and keeping them separated from each other. Each virus can hold five to 10 nanotubes, each of which is held firmly in place by about 300 of the virus's peptide molecules. In addition, the virus was engineered to produce a coating of titanium dioxide (TiO2), a key ingredient for dye-sensitized solar cells, over each of the nanotubes, putting the titanium dioxide in close proximity to the wire-like nanotubes that carry the electrons.

The two functions are carried out in succession by the same virus, whose activity is “switched” from one function to the next by changing the acidity of its environment. This switching feature is an important new capability that has been demonstrated for the first time in this research, Belcher says.

In addition, the viruses make the nanotubes soluble in water, which makes it possible to incorporate the nanotubes into the solar cell using a water-based process that works at room temperature.

Prashant Kamat, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Notre Dame University who has done extensive work on dye-sensitized solar cells, says that while others have attempted to use carbon nanotubes to improve solar cell efficiency, “the improvements observed in earlier studies were marginal,” while the improvements by the MIT team using the virus assembly method are “impressive.”

“It is likely that the virus template assembly has enabled the researchers to establish a better contact between the TiO2 nanoparticles and carbon nanotubes. Such close contact with TiO2 nanoparticles is essential to drive away the photo-generated electrons quickly and transport it efficiently to the collecting electrode surface.”

Kamat thinks the process could well lead to a viable commercial product: “Dye-sensitized solar cells have already been commercialized in Japan, Korea and Taiwan,” he says. If the addition of carbon nanotubes via the virus process can improve their efficiency, “the industry is likely to adopt such processes.”

Belcher and her colleagues have previously used differently engineered versions of the same virus to enhance the performance of batteries and other devices, but the method used to enhance solar cell performance is quite different, she says.

Because the process would just add one simple step to a standard solar-cell manufacturing process, it should be quite easy to adapt existing production facilities and thus should be possible to implement relatively rapidly, Belcher says.

The research team also included Paula Hammond, the Bayer Professor of Chemical Engineering; Michael Strano, the Charles (1951) and Hilda Roddey Career Development Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering; and four other graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. The work was funded by the Italian company Eni, through the MIT Energy Initiative’s Solar Futures Program.

Caroline McCall | EurekAlert!
Further information:

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>