Re-inventing nature for cheaper solar power

Sep 01, 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: Tough foam from tiny sheets

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

A tree may have the answers to renewable energy

Jul 23, 2014

Through an energy conversion process that mimics that of a tree, a University of Wisconsin-Madison materials scientist is making strides in renewable energy technologies for producing hydrogen.

The source of the sky's X-ray glow

Jul 27, 2014

In findings that help astrophysicists understand our corner of the galaxy, an international research team has shown that the soft X-ray glow blanketing the sky comes from both inside and outside the solar system.

Biomarkers of the deep

Jul 25, 2014

Tucked away in the southwest corner of Spain is a unique geological site that has fascinated astrobiologists for decades. The Iberian Pyrite Belt (IPB) in Spain's Río Tinto area is the largest known deposit ...

Recommended for you

Tough foam from tiny sheets

8 hours ago

Tough, ultralight foam of atom-thick sheets can be made to any size and shape through a chemical process invented at Rice University.

Graphene surfaces on photonic racetracks

Jul 28, 2014

In an article published in Optics Express, scientists from The University of Manchester describe how graphene can be wrapped around a silicon wire, or waveguide, and modify the transmission of light through it.

Simulating the invisible

Jul 28, 2014

Panagiotis Grammatikopoulos in the OIST Nanoparticles by Design Unit simulates the interactions of particles that are too small to see, and too complicated to visualize. In order to study the particles' behavior, he uses ...

Building 'invisible' materials with light

Jul 28, 2014

A new method of building materials using light, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, could one day enable technologies that are often considered the realm of science fiction, such as invisibility ...

User comments : 0