Scientists demonstrate new method for harvesting energy from light

Sep 09, 2013

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have demonstrated a new mechanism for extracting energy from light, a finding that could improve technologies for generating electricity from solar energy and lead to more efficient optoelectronic devices used in communications.

Dawn Bonnell, Penn's vice provost for research and Trustee Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, led the work, along with David Conklin, a doctoral student. The study involved a collaboration among additional Penn researchers, through the Nano/Bio Interface Center, as well as a partnership with the lab of Michael J. Therien of Duke University.

"We're excited to have found a process that is much more efficient than conventional photoconduction," Bonnell said. "Using such an approach could make harvesting and optoelectronic devices much better."

The study was published in the journal ACS Nano and will be discussed at a press conference at the American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exhibition in Indianapolis today at 10:30 a.m. (EDT).

The new work centers on plasmonic nanostructures, specifically, materials fabricated from gold particles and light-sensitive molecules of porphyin, of precise sizes and arranged in specific patterns. Plasmons, or a collective oscillation of electrons, can be excited in these systems by optical radiation and induce an electrical current that can move in a pattern determined by the size and layout of the gold particles, as well as the electrical properties of the surrounding environment.

Because these materials can enhance the scattering of light, they have the potential to be used to advantage in a range of technological applications, such as increasing absorption in solar cells.

In 2010, Bonnell and colleagues published a paper in ACS Nano reporting the fabrication of a plasmonic nanostructure, which induced and projected an electrical current across molecules. In some cases they designed the material, an array of gold nanoparticles, using a technique Bonnell's group invented, known as ferroelectric nanolithography.

The discovery was potentially powerful, but the scientists couldn't prove that the improved transduction of optical radiation to an was due to the "hot electrons" produced by the excited plasmons. Other possibilities included that the porphyin molecule itself was excited or that the electric field could focus the incoming light.

"We hypothesized that, when plasmons are excited to a high energy state, we should be able to harvest the electrons out of the material," Bonnell said. "If we could do that, we could use them for molecular electronics device applications, such as circuit components or solar energy extraction."

To examine the mechanism of the plasmon-induced current, the researchers systematically varied the different components of the plasmonic nanostructure, changing the size of the gold nanoparticles, the size of the porphyin molecules and the spacing of those components. They designed specific structures that ruled out the other possibilities so that the only contribution to enhanced photocurrent could be from the hot electrons harvested from the plasmons.

"In our measurements, compared to conventional photoexcitation, we saw increases of three to 10 times in the efficiency of our process," Bonnell said. "And we didn't even optimize the system. In principle you can envision huge increases in efficiency."

Devices incorporating this process of harvesting plasmon-induced could be customized for different applications by changing the size and spacing of nanoparticles, which would alter the wavelength of light to which the plasmon responds.

"You could imagine having a paint on your laptop that acted like a solar cell to power it using only sunlight," Bonnell said. "These materials could also improve communications devices, becoming part of efficient molecular circuits."

Explore further: A breakthrough in plasmonics

Related Stories

A breakthrough in plasmonics

Jun 17, 2013

EPFL scientists have discovered how optical signal transmission can be controlled, paving the way for the integration of plasmonics with conventional electronic circuits.

New nanomaterial increases yield of solar cells

Aug 26, 2013

Researchers from the FOM Foundation, Delft University of Technology, Toyota Motor Europe and the University of California have developed a nanostructure with which they can make solar cells highly efficient. ...

Recommended for you

'Exotic' material is like a switch when super thin

4 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Ever-shrinking electronic devices could get down to atomic dimensions with the help of transition metal oxides, a class of materials that seems to have it all: superconductivity, magnetoresistance ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

'Exotic' material is like a switch when super thin

(Phys.org) —Ever-shrinking electronic devices could get down to atomic dimensions with the help of transition metal oxides, a class of materials that seems to have it all: superconductivity, magnetoresistance ...

Innovative strategy to facilitate organ repair

A significant breakthrough could revolutionize surgical practice and regenerative medicine. A team led by Ludwik Leibler from the Laboratoire Matière Molle et Chimie (CNRS/ESPCI Paris Tech) and Didier Letourneur ...

Thinnest feasible nano-membrane produced

A new nano-membrane made out of the 'super material' graphene is extremely light and breathable. Not only can this open the door to a new generation of functional waterproof clothing, but also to ultra-rapid filtration. The ...

Continents may be a key feature of Super-Earths

Huge Earth-like planets that have both continents and oceans may be better at harboring extraterrestrial life than those that are water-only worlds. A new study gives hope for the possibility that many super-Earth ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...