Research finds bright future for alternative energy with greener solar cells

April 9, 2012

( -- Even alternative energy technologies can sometimes be a little greener, according to a Kansas State University graduate student's research.

Ayomi Perera, a doctoral student in chemistry, Sri Lanka, is working under Stefan Bossmann, professor of chemistry, to improve dye-sensitized solar cells. The cells are a that use a dye to help generate energy from sunlight. By creating a less toxic dye and combining it with a , Perera's solar cells are friendlier to the environment and -- making an alternative energy solution to fossil fuels even greener.

"Dye-sensitized solar cells, which are solar cells with light-absorbing dye, have been around for more than 20 years, but their highest efficiency has stayed close to 11 percent for some time," Perera said. "So the thought was that rather than trying to increase the efficiency, let's try to make to make the technology more green."

To make the solar cells greener and more efficient, Perera begins with the bacteria Mycobacterium smegmatis. Amycrobacterium is a type of pathogen that can cause diseases such as tuberculosis. Perera is using a species that is completely harmless and can be found in soil and cornflakes. It also produces the protein MspA, which can be used for numerous applications once it has been chemically purified.

After purification, Perera combines the protein with a synthesized dye that is less toxic than traditional dyes. The protein-dye mixture is coated onto individual solar cells -- which form large when assembled -- and is then tested with artificial sunlight to measure .

"The idea is that the protein acts as a matrix for for this dye that absorbs sunlight," Perera said. "We want the protein to be able to capture the electron that the dye gives out and then transfer that electron in one direction, thereby generating an electrical current."

Although the new dye-sensitized solar cells currently do not improve on the technology's ability to convert sunlight into , the technology is the first of its kind and could help low-cost solar cells become a more viable option in the alternative energy field.

"This type of research where you have a biodegradable or environmentally friendly component inside a solar cell has not been done before, and the research is still in its early stages right now," Perera said. "But we have noticed that it's working and that means that the protein is not decomposed in the light and electric generating conditions. Because of that we believe that we've actually made the first protein-incorporated solar cell."

In February, Perera was one of two K-State graduate students named a winner at the ninth annual Capitol Graduate Research Summit in Topeka. She received a $500 scholarship from KansasBio and will present her poster, "Design of a 'Greener' Solar Cell using Mycobacterial Protein MspA," at the organization's board of director's meeting in May.

Perera said the summit benefited her research because it gave her the chance to share her work with state legislators in addition to the scientific community. As a result, legislators can understand the work and how it affects Kansas.

"We know that are going to run out in the very near future," Perera said. "Kansas is getting a reputation as one of the central places in the U.S. for alternative energy research because of the abundance of sunlight and wind. I want to contribute to that and to the betterment of humanity with this research."

Explore further: Dye-sensitized solar cells with carbon nanotube transparent electrodes offer significant cost savings

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2 / 5 (1) Apr 09, 2012
"We know that fossil fuels are going to run out in the very near future"

Please define Very Near .
1.5 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2012
By creating a less toxic dye and combining it with a bacteria, Perera's solar cells are friendlier to the environment and living organisms -- making an alternative energy solution to fossil fuels even greener.
The green character solely depends on the economy: if these bacterial solar cells would be of low life-time, so it must be replaced/recycled often, if cannot be considered greener anymore.
Please define Very Near
Again, the economy is the main criterion here. At the moment, when production and treatment of fossil fuels will become more costly, than the energy generated from it, than the fossil fuel will become unsustainable - even if the whole Earth mantle would remain stuffed with oil. For example, we have no lack of iron at the Earth technically, because whole the Earth core is filled with molten iron. But this iron would be probably more expensive, than the surface iron ores due the gravity well, in which this iron resides, even if we could access it freely.
5 / 5 (1) Apr 11, 2012
"We know that fossil fuels are going to run out in the very near future"

Please define Very Near .

Handful of decades. There is no more cheap oil to develop; most of the cheap natural gas is gone.

We can develop unconventional oil and gas and we can continue using mountains of coal for a long time after that, but they are exceptionally dirty and very GHG intensive. We need on the order of 90% CO2-emission reduction by 2050 to be reasonably sure to stay under 2 degrees C rise this century.

This does not imply that piddle-power like wind and solar is at all going to be helpful in doing that. Solar and wind have massive storage and transmission problems; I'd group them toghether with fusion for how difficult they are to solve; there is the possibility of rapid advance(as is the case with unconventional approaches to fusion). Fission we know how to roll out quickly. Carbon capture; well, maybe but it's going to add a fairly large cost to coal and gas plants.
not rated yet Apr 12, 2012
The economy is very much important, but governments have guided the economy to focus on issues of national and international importance before in order to prevent catastrophe. We just have never had such huge oil and coal fortunes preventing the humanitarian exercise of sensible government policies. Regulation is the answer. We shall see.

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