Re-inventing nature for cheaper solar power

September 1, 2006

A research team in Sydney has created molecules that mimic those in plants which harvest light and power life on Earth.

“A leaf is an amazingly cheap and efficient solar cell,” says Dr Deanna D’Alessandro, a postdoctoral researcher in the Molecular Electronics Group at the University of Sydney. “The best leaves can harvest 30 to 40 percent of the light falling on them. The best solar cells we can build are between 15 and 20 percent efficient, and expensive to make.”

“We’ve recreated some of the key systems that plants use in photosynthesis,” says Deanna.

Bacteria and green plants use photosynthesis to convert light energy into usable chemical energy. Wheel-shaped arrays of molecules called porphyrins collect light and transfer it to the hub where chemical reactions use the light energy to convert carbon dioxide into energy-rich sugar and oxygen.

“This process, which occurs in about 40 trillionths of a second is fundamental to photosynthesis and is at the base of the food chain for almost all life on Earth,” says Deanna.

“We have been able to construct synthetic porphyrins. More than 100 of them can be assembled around a tree-like core called a dendrimer to mimic the wheel-shaped arrangement in natural photosynthetic systems.”

These molecules designed by the team are about 1 billionth the size of a soccer ball. But the large number of porphyrins in a single molecule means that a significant amount of light can be captured and converted to electrical energy – just like in nature.

“Since they are so efficient at storing energy, we think they could also be used as batteries – replacing the metal-based batteries that our high technology devices depend on today,” Deanna says.

“Our preliminary results are very promising. We are still in the early stages of building practical solar energy devices using our molecules,” said Deanna. “The challenge is immense, but is crucial to providing alternative energy solutions for Australia and the world.”

Now they’ve made the molecules, the team along with their Japanese collaborators at Osaka University are working to combine them in the equivalent of a plant cell. Then, over the next five years they will attempt to scale up the technology to commercial scale solar panels.

Source: Science in Public

Explore further: Combining conventional and concentrated solar technology results in efficiency gains

Related Stories

Plug in for renewable energy

December 5, 2016

A new study shows a huge US market for plug and play solar energy, with billions of dollars in retail sales and energy savings. So what's holding up widespread use?

How plants manage excess solar energy

December 5, 2016

Life on earth largely depends on the conversion of light energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis by plants. However, absorption of excess sunlight can damage the complex machinery responsible for this process. ...

Recommended for you

Particles self-assemble into Archimedean tilings

December 8, 2016

(Phys.org)—For the first time, researchers have simulated particles that can spontaneously self-assemble into networks that form geometrical arrangements called Archimedean tilings. The key to realizing these structures ...

Nano-calligraphy on graphene

December 8, 2016

Scientists at The University of Manchester and Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have demonstrated a method to chemically modify small regions of graphene with high precision, leading to extreme miniaturisation of chemical ...

ANU invention to inspire new night-vision specs

December 7, 2016

Scientists at The Australian National University (ANU) have designed a nano crystal around 500 times smaller than a human hair that turns darkness into visible light and can be used to create light-weight night-vision glasses.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.