Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Solar power goes viral

26.04.2011
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:
http://www.mit.edu

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht Waste from paper and pulp industry supplies raw material for development of new redox flow batteries
12.10.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

nachricht Low-cost battery from waste graphite
11.10.2017 | Empa - Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt

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: Neutron star merger directly observed for the first time

University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event

On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...

Im Focus: Breaking: the first light from two neutron stars merging

Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.

Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....

Im Focus: Smart sensors for efficient processes

Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).

When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...

Im Focus: Cold molecules on collision course

Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.

How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...

Im Focus: Shrinking the proton again!

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.

It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ASEAN Member States discuss the future role of renewable energy

17.10.2017 | Event News

World Health Summit 2017: International experts set the course for the future of Global Health

10.10.2017 | Event News

Climate Engineering Conference 2017 Opens in Berlin

10.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Terahertz spectroscopy goes nano

20.10.2017 | Information Technology

Strange but true: Turning a material upside down can sometimes make it softer

20.10.2017 | Materials Sciences

NRL clarifies valley polarization for electronic and optoelectronic technologies

20.10.2017 | Interdisciplinary Research

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>