Tag Archives: solar cells

Transparent wood instead of glass for window panes?

The transparent wood is made by removing the lignin in the wood veneer. (Photo: Peter Larsson

The transparent wood is made by removing the lignin in the wood veneer. (Photo: Peter Larsson

Not quite ready as a replacement for some types of glass window panes, nonetheless, transparent (more like translucent) wood is an impressive achievement. According to a March 30, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily size is what makes this piece of transparent wood newsworthy,

Windows and solar panels in the future could be made from one of the best — and cheapest — construction materials known: wood. Researchers at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology [Sweden] have developed a new transparent wood material that’s suitable for mass production.

Lars Berglund, a professor at Wallenberg Wood Science Center at KTH, says that while optically transparent wood has been developed for microscopic samples in the study of wood anatomy, the KTH project introduces a way to use the material on a large scale. …

A March 31 (?), 2016 KTH Institute of Technology press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“Transparent wood is a good material for solar cells, since it’s a low-cost, readily available and renewable resource,” Berglund says. “This becomes particularly important in covering large surfaces with solar cells.”

Berglund says transparent wood panels can also be used for windows, and semitransparent facades, when the idea is to let light in but maintain privacy.

The optically transparent wood is a type of wood veneer in which the lignin, a component of the cell walls, is removed chemically.

“When the lignin is removed, the wood becomes beautifully white. But because wood isn’t not naturally transparent, we achieve that effect with some nanoscale tailoring,” he says.

The white porous veneer substrate is impregnated with a transparent polymer and the optical properties of the two are then matched, he says.

“No one has previously considered the possibility of creating larger transparent structures for use as solar cells and in buildings,” he says

Among the work to be done next is enhancing the transparency of the material and scaling up the manufacturing process, Berglund says.

“We also intend to work further with different types of wood,” he adds.

“Wood is by far the most used bio-based material in buildings. It’s attractive that the material comes from renewable sources. It also offers excellent mechanical properties, including strength, toughness, low density and low thermal conductivity.”

The American Chemical Society has a March 30, 2016 news release about the KTH achievement on EurekAlert  highlighting another potential use for transparent wood,

When it comes to indoor lighting, nothing beats the sun’s rays streaming in through windows. Soon, that natural light could be shining through walls, too. Scientists have developed transparent wood that could be used in building materials and could help home and building owners save money on their artificial lighting costs. …

Homeowners often search for ways to brighten up their living space. They opt for light-colored paints, mirrors and lots of lamps and ceiling lights. But if the walls themselves were transparent, this would reduce the need for artificial lighting — and the associated energy costs. Recent work on making transparent paper from wood has led to the potential for making similar but stronger materials. Lars Berglund and colleagues wanted to pursue this possibility.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Optically Transparent Wood from a Nanoporous Cellulosic Template: Combining Functional and Structural Performance by Yuanyuan Li, Qiliang Fu, Shun Yu, Min Yan, and Lars Berglund. Biomacromolecules, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.biomac.6b00145 Publication Date (Web): March 4, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

How vibrations affect nanoscale materials

A March 9, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily announces work concerning atomic vibrations,

All materials are made up of atoms, which vibrate. These vibrations, or ‘phonons’, are responsible, for example, for how electric charge and heat is transported in materials. Vibrations of metals, semiconductors, and insulators in are well studied; however, now materials are being nanosized to bring better performance to applications such as displays, sensors, batteries, and catalytic membranes. What happens to vibrations when a material is nanosized has until now not been understood.

A March 9, 2016 ETH Zurich press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the world of vibration at the nanoscale and the potential impact this new information could have,

Soft Surfaces Vibrate Strongly

In a recent publication in Nature, ETH Professor Vanessa Wood and her colleagues explain what happens to atomic vibrations when materials are nanosized and how this knowledge can be used to systematically engineer nanomaterials for different applications.

The paper shows that when materials are made smaller than about 10 to 20 nanometers – that is, 5,000 times thinner than a human air – the vibrations of the outermost atomic layers on surface of the nanoparticle are large and play an important role in how this material behaves.

“For some applications, like catalysis, thermoelectrics, or superconductivity, these large vibrations may be good, but for other applications like LEDs or solar cells, these vibrations are undesirable,” explains Wood.

Indeed, the paper explains why nanoparticle-based solar cells have until now not met their full promise.  The researchers showed using both experiment and theory that surface vibrations interact with electrons to reduce the photocurrent in solar cells.

“Now that we have proven that surface vibrations are important, we can systematically design materials to suppress or enhance these vibrations,” say Wood.

Improving Solar Cells

Wood’s research group has worked for a long time on a particular type of nanomaterial – colloidal nanocrystals – semiconductors with a diameter of 2 to 10 nanometers.  These materials are interesting because their optical and electrical properties are dependent on their size, which can be easily changed during their synthesis.

These materials are now used commercially as red- and green-light emitters in LED-based TVs and are being explored as possible materials for low cost, solution-processed solar cells.  Researchers have noticed that placing certain atoms around the surface of the nanocrystal can improve the performance of solar cells. The reason why this worked had not been understood.  The work published in the Nature paper now gives the answer:  a hard shell of atoms can suppress the vibrations and their interaction with electrons.  This means a higher photocurrent and a higher efficiency solar cell.

Big Science to Study the Nanoscale

Experiments were conducted in Professor Wood’s labs at ETH Zurich and at the Swiss Spallation Neutron Source at the Paul Scherrer Institute. By observing how neutrons scatter off atoms in a material, it is possible to quantify how atoms in a material vibrate. To understand the neutron measurements, simulations of the atomic vibrations were run at the Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS) in Lugano. Wood says, “without access to these large facilities, this work would not have been possible. We are incredibly fortunate here in Switzerland to have these world class facilities.”

The researchers have made available an image illustrating their work,

Vibrations of atoms in materials, the "phonons", are responsible for how electric charge and heat is transported in materials (Graphics: Deniz Bozyigit / ETH Zurich)

Vibrations of atoms in materials, the “phonons”, are responsible for how electric charge and heat is transported in materials (Graphics: Deniz Bozyigit / ETH Zurich)

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Soft surfaces of nanomaterials enable strong phonon interactions by Deniz Bozyigit, Nuri Yazdani, Maksym Yarema, Olesya Yarema, Weyde Matteo Mario Lin, Sebastian Volk, Kantawong Vuttivorakulchai, Mathieu Luisier, Fanni Juranyi, & Vanessa Wood. Nature (2016)  doi:10.1038/nature16977 Published online 09 March 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Solar cells and soap bubbles

The MIT team has achieved the thinnest and lightest complete solar cells ever made, they say. To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping the bubble. Photo: Joel Jean and Anna Osherov

The MIT team has achieved the thinnest and lightest complete solar cells ever made, they say. To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping the bubble. Photo: Joel Jean and Anna Osherov

That’s quite a compelling image and it comes to us courtesy of researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). From a Feb. 25, 2016 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert),

Imagine solar cells so thin, flexible, and lightweight that they could be placed on almost any material or surface, including your hat, shirt, or smartphone, or even on a sheet of paper or a helium balloon.

Researchers at MIT have now demonstrated just such a technology: the thinnest, lightest solar cells ever produced. Though it may take years to develop into a commercial product, the laboratory proof-of-concept shows a new approach to making solar cells that could help power the next generation of portable electronic devices.

Bulović [Vladimir Bulović ], MIT’s associate dean for innovation and the Fariborz Maseeh (1990) Professor of Emerging Technology, says the key to the new approach is to make the solar cell, the substrate that supports it, and a protective overcoating to shield it from the environment, all in one process. The substrate is made in place and never needs to be handled, cleaned, or removed from the vacuum during fabrication, thus minimizing exposure to dust or other contaminants that could degrade the cell’s performance.

“The innovative step is the realization that you can grow the substrate at the same time as you grow the device,” Bulović says.

In this initial proof-of-concept experiment, the team used a common flexible polymer called parylene as both the substrate and the overcoating, and an organic material called DBP as the primary light-absorbing layer. Parylene is a commercially available plastic coating used widely to protect implanted biomedical devices and printed circuit boards from environmental damage. The entire process takes place in a vacuum chamber at room temperature and without the use of any solvents, unlike conventional solar-cell manufacturing, which requires high temperatures and harsh chemicals. In this case, both the substrate and the solar cell are “grown” using established vapor deposition techniques.

One process, many materials

The team emphasizes that these particular choices of materials were just examples, and that it is the in-line substrate manufacturing process that is the key innovation. Different materials could be used for the substrate and encapsulation layers, and different types of thin-film solar cell materials, including quantum dots or perovskites, could be substituted for the organic layers used in initial tests.

But already, the team has achieved the thinnest and lightest complete solar cells ever made, they say. To demonstrate just how thin and lightweight the cells are, the researchers draped a working cell on top of a soap bubble, without popping the bubble. The researchers acknowledge that this cell may be too thin to be practical — “If you breathe too hard, you might blow it away,” says Jean [Joel Jean, doctoral student] — but parylene films of thicknesses of up to 80 microns can be deposited easily using commercial equipment, without losing the other benefits of in-line substrate formation.

A flexible parylene film, similar to kitchen cling-wrap but only one-tenth as thick, is first deposited on a sturdier carrier material – in this case, glass. Figuring out how to cleanly separate the thin material from the glass was a key challenge, explains Wang [Annie Wang, research scientist], who has spent many years working with parylene.

The researchers lift the entire parylene/solar cell/parylene stack off the carrier after the fabrication process is complete, using a frame made of flexible film. The final ultra-thin, flexible solar cells, including substrate and overcoating, are just one-fiftieth of the thickness of a human hair and one-thousandth of the thickness of equivalent cells on glass substrates — about two micrometers thick — yet they convert sunlight into electricity just as efficiently as their glass-based counterparts.

No miracles needed

“We put our carrier in a vacuum system, then we deposit everything else on top of it, and then peel the whole thing off,” explains Wang. Bulović says that like most new inventions, it all sounds very simple — once it’s been done. But actually developing the techniques to make the process work required years of effort.

While they used a glass carrier for their solar cells, Jean says “it could be something else. You could use almost any material,” since the processing takes place under such benign conditions. The substrate and solar cell could be deposited directly on fabric or paper, for example.

While the solar cell in this demonstration device is not especially efficient, because of its low weight, its power-to-weight ratio is among the highest ever achieved. That’s important for applications where weight is important, such as on spacecraft or on high-altitude helium balloons used for research. Whereas a typical silicon-based solar module, whose weight is dominated by a glass cover, may produce about 15 watts of power per kilogram of weight, the new cells have already demonstrated an output of 6 watts per gram — about 400 times higher.

“It could be so light that you don’t even know it’s there, on your shirt or on your notebook,” Bulović says. “These cells could simply be an add-on to existing structures.”

Still, this is early, laboratory-scale work, and developing it into a manufacturable product will take time, the team says. Yet while commercial success in the short term may be uncertain, this work could open up new applications for solar power in the long term. “We have a proof-of-concept that works,” Bulović says. The next question is, “How many miracles does it take to make it scalable? We think it’s a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

In situ vapor-deposited parylene substrates for ultra-thin, lightweight organic solar cells by Joel Jean, Annie Wang, Vladimir Bulović. Organic Electronics Volume 31, April 2016, Pages 120–126 doi:10.1016/j.orgel.2016.01.022

This paper is behind a paywall.

South Africa, energy, and nanotechnology

South African academics Nosipho Moloto, Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of the Witwatersrand and Siyabonga P. Ngubane, Lecturer in Chemistry, University of the Witwatersrand have written a Feb. 17, 2016 article for The Conversation (also available on the South African Broadcasting Corporation website) about South Africa’s energy needs and its nanotechnology efforts (Note: Links have been removed),

Energy is an economic driver of both developed and developing countries. South Africa over the past few years has faced an energy crisis with rolling blackouts between 2008 and 2015. Part of the problem has been attributed to mismanagement by the state-owned utility company Eskom, particularly the shortcomings of maintenance plans on several plants.

But South Africa has two things going for it that could help it out of its current crisis. By developing a strong nanotechnology capability and applying this to its rich mineral reserves the country is well-placed to develop new energy technologies.

Nanotechnology has already shown that it has the potential to alleviate energy problems. …

It can also yield materials with new properties and the miniaturisation of devices. For example, since the discovery of graphene, a single atomic layer of graphite, several applications in biological engineering, electronics and composite materials have been identified. These include economic and efficient devices like solar cells and lithium ion secondary batteries.

Nanotechnology has seen an incredible increase in commercialisation. Nearly 10,000 patents have been filed by large corporations since its beginning in 1991. There are already a number of nanotechnology products and solutions on the market. Examples include Miller’s beer bottling composites, Armor’s N-Force line bulletproof vests and printed solar cells produced by Nanosolar – as well as Samsung’s nanotechnology television.

The advent of nanotechnology in South Africa began with the South African Nanotechnology Initiative in 2002. This was followed by the a [sic] national nanotechnology strategy in 2003.

The government has spent more than R450 million [Rand] in nanotechnology and nanosciences research since 2006. For example, two national innovation centres have been set up and funding has been made available for equipment. There has also been flagship funding.

The country could be globally competitive in this field due to the infancy of the technology. As such, there are plenty of opportunities to make novel discoveries in South Africa.

Mineral wealth

There is another major advantage South Africa has that could help diversify its energy supply. It has an abundance of mineral wealth with an estimated value of US$2.5 trillion. The country has the world’s largest reserves of manganese and platinum group metals. It also has massive reserves of gold, diamonds, chromite ore and vanadium.

Through beneficiation and nanotechnology these resources could be used to cater for the development of new energy technologies. Research in beneficiation of minerals for energy applications is gaining momentum. For example, Anglo American and the Department of Science and Technology have embarked on a partnership to convert hydrogen into electricity.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial research also aims to develop low cost lithium ion batteries and supercapacitors using locally mined manganese and titanium ores. There is collaborative researchto use minerals like gold to synthesize nanomaterials for application in photovoltaics.

The current photovoltaic market relies on importing solar cells or panels from Europe, Asia and the US for local assembly to produce arrays. South African UV index is one of the highest in the world which reduces the lifespan of solar panels. The key to a thriving and profitable photovoltaic sector therefore lies in local production and research and development to support the sector.

It’s worth reading the article in its entirety if you’re interested in a perspective on South Africa’s energy and nanotechnology efforts.

Back to the mortar and pestle for perovskite-based photovoltaics

This mechanochemistry (think mortar and pestle) story about perovskite comes from Poland. From a Jan. 14, 2016 Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences press release (also on EurekAlert but dated Jan. 16, 2016),

Perovskites, substances that perfectly absorb light, are the future of solar energy. The opportunity for their rapid dissemination has just increased thanks to a cheap and environmentally safe method of production of these materials, developed by chemists from Warsaw, Poland. Rather than in solutions at a high temperature, perovskites can now be synthesized by solid-state mechanochemical processes: by grinding powders.

We associate the milling of chemicals less often with progress than with old-fashioned pharmacies and their inherent attributes: the pestle and mortar. [emphasis mine] It’s time to change this! Recent research findings show that by the use of mechanical force, effective chemical transformations take place in solid state. Mechanochemical reactions have been under investigation for many years by the teams of Prof. Janusz Lewinski from the Institute of Physical Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IPC PAS) and the Faculty of Chemistry of Warsaw University of Technology. In their latest publication, the Warsaw researchers describe a surprisingly simple and effective method of obtaining perovskites – futuristic photovoltaic materials with a spatially complex crystal structure.

“With the aid of mechanochemistry we are able to synthesize a variety of hybrid inorganic-organic functional materials with a potentially great significance for the energy sector. Our youngest ‘offspring’ are high quality perovskites. These compounds can be used to produce thin light-sensitive layers for high efficiency solar cells,” says Prof. Lewinski.

Perovskites are a large group of materials, characterized by a defined spatial crystalline structure. In nature, the perovskite naturally occurring as a mineral is calcium titanium(IV) oxide CaTiO3. Here the calcium atoms are arranged in the corners of the cube, in the middle of each wall there is an oxygen atom and at the centre of the cube lies a titanium atom. In other types of perovskite the same crystalline structure can be constructed of various organic and inorganic compounds, which means titanium can be replaced by, for example, lead, tin or germanium. As a result, the properties of the perovskite can be adjusted so as to best fit the specific application, for example, in photovoltaics or catalysis, but also in the construction of superconducting electromagnets, high voltage transformers, magnetic refrigerators, magnetic field sensors, or RAM memories.

At first glance, the method of production of perovskites using mechanical force, developed at the IPC PAS, looks a little like magic.

“Two powders are poured into the ball mill: a white one, methylammonium iodide CH3NH3I, and a yellow one, lead iodide PbI2. After several minutes of milling no trace is left of the substrates. Inside the mill there is only a homogeneous black powder: the perovskite CH3NH3PbI3,” explains doctoral student Anna Maria Cieslak (IPC PAS).

“Hour after hour of waiting for the reaction product? Solvents? High temperatures? In our method, all this turns out to be unnecessary! We produce chemical compounds by reactions occurring only in solids at room temperature,” stresses Dr. Daniel Prochowicz (IPC PAS).

The mechanochemically manufactured perovskites were sent to the team of Prof. Michael Graetzel from the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne in Switzerland, where they were used to build a new laboratory solar cell. The performance of the cell containing the perovskite with a mechanochemical pedigree proved to be more than 10% greater than a cell’s performance with the same construction, but containing an analogous perovskite obtained by the traditional method, involving solvents.

“The mechanochemical method of synthesis of perovskites is the most environmentally friendly method of producing this class of materials. Simple, efficient and fast, it is ideal for industrial applications. With full responsibility we can state: perovskites are the materials of the future, and mechanochemistry is the future of perovskites,” concludes Prof. Lewinski.

The described research will be developed within GOTSolar collaborative project funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 Future and Emerging Technologies action.

Perovskites are not the only group of three-dimensional materials that has been produced mechanochemically by Prof. Lewinski’s team. In a recent publication the Warsaw researchers showed that by using the milling technique they can also synthesize inorganic-organic microporous MOF (Metal-Organic Framework) materials. The free space inside these materials is the perfect place to store different chemicals, including hydrogen.

This research was published back in August 2015,

Mechanosynthesis of the hybrid perovskite CH3NH3PbI3: characterization and the corresponding solar cell efficiency by D. Prochowicz, M. Franckevičius, A. M. Cieślak, S. M. Zakeeruddin, M. Grätzel and J. Lewiński. J. Mater. Chem. A, 2015,3, 20772-20777 DOI: 10.1039/C5TA04904K First published online 27 Aug 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of New Brunswick (Canada), ‘sun in a can’, and buckyballs

Cutting the cost for making solar cells could be a step in the right direction for more widespread adoption. At any rate, that seems to be the motivation for Dr. Felipe Chibante of the University of New Brunswick  and his team as they’ve worked for the past three years or so on cutting production costs for fullerenes (also known as, buckminsterfullerenes, C60, and buckyballs). From a Dec. 23, 2015 article by Michael Tutton for Canadian Press,

A heating system so powerful it gave its creator a sunburn from three metres away is being developed by a New Brunswick engineering professor as a method to sharply reduce the costs of making the carbon used in some solar cells.

Felipe Chibante says his “sun in a can” method of warming carbon at more than 5,000 degrees Celsius helps create the stable carbon 60 needed in more flexible forms of photovoltaic panels.

Tutton includes some technical explanations in his article,

Chibante and senior students at the University of New Brunswick created the system to heat baseball-sized lumps of plasma — a form of matter composed of positively charged gas particles and free-floating negatively charged electrons — at his home and later in a campus lab.

According to a May 22, 2012 University of New Brunswick news release received funding of almost $1.5M from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency for his work with fullerenes,

Dr. Felipe Chibante, associate professor in UNB’s department of chemical engineering, and his team at the Applied Nanotechnology Lab received nearly $1.5 million to lower the cost of fullerenes, which is the molecular form of pure carbon and is a critical ingredient for the plastic solar cell market.

Dr. Chibante and the collaborators on the project have developed fundamental synthesis methods that will be integrated in a unique plasma reactor to result in a price reduction of 50-75 per cent.

Dr. Chibante and his work were also featured in a June 10, 2013 news item on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news online,

Judges with the New Brunswick Innovation Fund like the idea and recently awarded Chibante $460,000 to continue his research at the university’s Fredericton campus.

Chibante has a long history of working with fullerenes — carbon molecules that can store the sun’s energy. He was part of the research team that discovered fullerenes in 1985 [the three main researchers at Rice University, Texas, received Nobel Prizes for the work].

He says they can be added to liquid, spread over plastic and shingles and marketed as a cheaper way to convert sunlight into electricity.

“What we’re trying to do in New Brunswick with the science research and innovation is we’re really trying to get the maximum bang for the buck,” said Chibante.

As it stands, fullerenes cost about $15,000 per kilogram. Chibante hopes to lower the cost by a factor of 10.

The foundation investment brings Chibante’s research funding to about $6.2 million.

Not everyone is entirely sold on this approach to encouraging solar energy adoption (from the CBC news item),

The owner of Urban Pioneer, a Fredericton [New Brunswick] company that sells alternative energy products, likes the concept, but doubts there’s much of a market in New Brunswick.

“We have conventional solar panels right now and they’re not that popular,” said Tony Craft.

“So I can’t imagine, like, when you throw something completely brand new into it, I don’t know how people are going to respond to that even, so it may be a very tough sell,” he said.

Getting back to Chibante’s breakthrough (from Tutton’s Dec. 23, 2015 article),

The 52-year-old researcher says he first set up the system to operate in his garage.

He installed optical filters to watch the melting process but said the light from the plasma was so intense that he later noticed a sunburn on his neck.

The plasma is placed inside a container that can contain and cool the extremely hot material without exposing it to the air.

The conversion technology has the advantage of not using solvents and doesn’t produce the carbon dioxide that other baking systems use, says Chibante.

He says the next stage is finding commercial partners who can help his team further develop the system, which was originally designed and patented by French researcher Laurent Fulcheri.

Chibante said he doesn’t believe the carbon-based, thin-film solar cells will displace the silicon-based cells because they capture less energy.

But he nonetheless sees a future for the more flexible sheets of solar cells.

“You can make fibres, you can make photovoltaic threads and you get into wearable, portable forms of power that makes it more ubiquitous rather than having to carry a big, rigid structure,” he said.

The researcher says the agreement earlier this month [Nov. 30 – Dec. 12, 2015] in Paris among 200 countries to begin reducing the use of fossil fuels and slow global warming may help his work.

By the way,  Chibante estimates production costs for fullerenes, when using his system, would be less that $50/kilogram for what is now the highest priced component of carbon-based solar cells.

There is another researcher in Canada who works in the field of solar energy, Dr. Ted Sargent at the University of Toronto (Ontario). He largely focuses on harvesting solar energy by using quantum dots. I last featured Sargent’s quantum dot work in a Dec. 9, 2014 posting.

100 percent efficiency transporting the energy of sunlight from receptors to reaction centers

Genetic engineering has been combined with elements of quantum physics to find a better way of transferring the energy derived from sunlight from the receptors to the reaction centers (i.e., photosynthesis). From an Oct. 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Nature has had billions of years to perfect photosynthesis, which directly or indirectly supports virtually all life on Earth. In that time, the process has achieved almost 100 percent efficiency in transporting the energy of sunlight from receptors to reaction centers where it can be harnessed — a performance vastly better than even the best solar cells.

One way plants achieve this efficiency is by making use of the exotic effects of quantum mechanics — effects sometimes known as “quantum weirdness.” These effects, which include the ability of a particle to exist in more than one place at a time [superposition], have now been used by engineers at MIT to achieve a significant efficiency boost in a light-harvesting system.

Surprisingly, the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] researchers achieved this new approach to solar energy not with high-tech materials or microchips — but by using genetically engineered viruses.

An Oct. 15, 2015 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, recounts an exciting tale of interdisciplinary work and an international collaboration,

This achievement in coupling quantum research and genetic manipulation, described this week in the journal Nature Materials, was the work of MIT professors Angela Belcher, an expert on engineering viruses to carry out energy-related tasks, and Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum theory and its potential applications; research associate Heechul Park; and 14 collaborators at MIT and in Italy.

Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering, explains that in photosynthesis, a photon hits a receptor called a chromophore, which in turn produces an exciton — a quantum particle of energy. This exciton jumps from one chromophore to another until it reaches a reaction center, where that energy is harnessed to build the molecules that support life.

But the hopping pathway is random and inefficient unless it takes advantage of quantum effects that allow it, in effect, to take multiple pathways at once and select the best ones, behaving more like a wave than a particle.

This efficient movement of excitons has one key requirement: The chromophores have to be arranged just right, with exactly the right amount of space between them. This, Lloyd explains, is known as the “Quantum Goldilocks Effect.”

That’s where the virus comes in. By engineering a virus that Belcher has worked with for years, the team was able to get it to bond with multiple synthetic chromophores — or, in this case, organic dyes. The researchers were then able to produce many varieties of the virus, with slightly different spacings between those synthetic chromophores, and select the ones that performed best.

In the end, they were able to more than double excitons’ speed, increasing the distance they traveled before dissipating — a significant improvement in the efficiency of the process.

The project started from a chance meeting at a conference in Italy. Lloyd and Belcher, a professor of biological engineering, were reporting on different projects they had worked on, and began discussing the possibility of a project encompassing their very different expertise. Lloyd, whose work is mostly theoretical, pointed out that the viruses Belcher works with have the right length scales to potentially support quantum effects.

In 2008, Lloyd had published a paper demonstrating that photosynthetic organisms transmit light energy efficiently because of these quantum effects. When he saw Belcher’s report on her work with engineered viruses, he wondered if that might provide a way to artificially induce a similar effect, in an effort to approach nature’s efficiency.

“I had been talking about potential systems you could use to demonstrate this effect, and Angela said, ‘We’re already making those,'” Lloyd recalls. Eventually, after much analysis, “We came up with design principles to redesign how the virus is capturing light, and get it to this quantum regime.”

Within two weeks, Belcher’s team had created their first test version of the engineered virus. Many months of work then went into perfecting the receptors and the spacings.

Once the team engineered the viruses, they were able to use laser spectroscopy and dynamical modeling to watch the light-harvesting process in action, and to demonstrate that the new viruses were indeed making use of quantum coherence to enhance the transport of excitons.

“It was really fun,” Belcher says. “A group of us who spoke different [scientific] languages worked closely together, to both make this class of organisms, and analyze the data. That’s why I’m so excited by this.”

While this initial result is essentially a proof of concept rather than a practical system, it points the way toward an approach that could lead to inexpensive and efficient solar cells or light-driven catalysis, the team says. So far, the engineered viruses collect and transport energy from incoming light, but do not yet harness it to produce power (as in solar cells) or molecules (as in photosynthesis). But this could be done by adding a reaction center, where such processing takes place, to the end of the virus where the excitons end up.

MIT has produced a video explanation of the work,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Enhanced energy transport in genetically engineered excitonic networks by Heechul Park, Nimrod Heldman, Patrick Rebentrost, Luigi Abbondanza, Alessandro Iagatti, Andrea Alessi, Barbara Patrizi, Mario Salvalaggio, Laura Bussotti, Masoud Mohseni, Filippo Caruso, Hannah C. Johnsen, Roberto Fusco, Paolo Foggi, Petra F. Scudo, Seth Lloyd, & Angela M. Belcher. Nature Materials (2015) doi:10.1038/nmat4448 Published online 12 October 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

University of Vermont and the ‘excitons’ of an electron superhighway

This story starts off with one of the current crazes, folding and bendable electronics, before heading off onto the ‘electron highway’. From a Sept. 14, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: Links have been removed),

TV screens that roll up. Roofing tiles that double as solar panels. Sun-powered cell phone chargers woven into the fabric of backpacks. A new generation of organic semiconductors may allow these kinds of flexible electronics to be manufactured at low cost, says University of Vermont physicist and materials scientist Madalina Furis.

But the basic science of how to get electrons to move quickly and easily in these organic materials remains murky.

To help, Furis and a team of UVM materials scientists have invented a new way to create what they are calling “an electron superhighway” in one of these materials — a low-cost blue dye called phthalocyanine — that promises to allow electrons to flow faster and farther in organic semiconductors.

A Sept. 14, 2015 University of Vermont news release (also on EurekAlert) by Joshua E. Brown, which originated the news item, describes the problem the researches were trying to solve and the solution they found,

Hills and potholes

Many of these types of flexible electronic devices will rely on thin films of organic materials that catch sunlight and convert the light into electric current using excited states in the material called “excitons.” Roughly speaking, an exciton is a displaced electron bound together with the hole it left behind. Increasing the distance these excitons can diffuse — before they reach a juncture where they’re broken apart to produce electrical current — is essential to improving the efficiency of organic semiconductors.

Using a new imaging technique, the UVM team was able to observe nanoscale defects and boundaries in the crystal grains in the thin films of phthalocyanine — roadblocks in the electron highway. “We have discovered that we have hills that electrons have to go over and potholes that they need to avoid,” Furis explains.

To find these defects, the UVM team — with support from the National Science Foundation — built a scanning laser microscope, “as big as a table” Furis says. The instrument combines a specialized form of linearly polarized light and photoluminescence to optically probe the molecular structure of the phthalocyanine crystals.

“Marrying these two techniques together is new; it’s never been reported anywhere,” says Lane Manning ’08 a doctoral student in Furis’ lab and co-author on the new study.

The new technique allows the scientists a deeper understanding of how the arrangement of molecules and the boundaries in the crystals influence the movement of excitons. It’s these boundaries that form a “barrier for exciton diffusion,” the team writes.

And then, with this enhanced view, “this energy barrier can be entirely eliminated,” the team writes. The trick: very carefully controlling how the thin films are deposited. Using a novel “pen-writing” technique with a hollow capillary, the team worked in the lab of UVM physics and materials science professor Randy Headrick to successfully form films with jumbo-sized crystal grains and “small angle boundaries.” Think of these as easy-on ramps onto a highway — instead of an awkward stop sign at the top of a hill — that allow excitons to move far and fast.

Better solar cells

Though the Nature Communications study focused on just one organic material, phthalocyanine, the new research provides a powerful way to explore many other types of organic materials, too — with particular promise for improved solar cells. A recent U.S. Department of Energy report identified one of the fundamental bottlenecks to improved solar power technologies as “determining the mechanisms by which the absorbed energy (exciton) migrates through the system prior to splitting into charges that are converted to electricity.”

The new UVM study — led by two of Furis’ students, Zhenwen Pan G’12, and Naveen Rawat G’15 — opens a window to view how increasing “long-range order” in the organic semiconductor films is a key mechanism that allows excitons to migrate farther. “The molecules are stacked like dishes in a dish rack,” Furis explains, “these stacked molecules — this dish rack — is the electron superhighway.”

Though excitons are neutrally charged — and can’t be pushed by voltage like the electrons flowing in a light bulb — they can, in a sense, bounce from one of these tightly stacked molecules to the next. This allows organic thin films to carry energy along this molecular highway with relative ease, though no net electrical charge is transported.

“One of today’s big challenges is how to make better photovoltaics and solar technologies,” says Furis, who directs UVM’s program in materials science, “and to do that we need a deeper understanding of exciton diffusion. That’s what this research is about.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Polarization-resolved spectroscopy imaging of grain boundaries and optical excitations in crystalline organic thin films by Z. Pan, N. Rawat, I. Cour, L. Manning, R. L. Headrick, & M. Furis. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8201 doi:10.1038/ncomms9201 Published 14 September 2015

This is an open access article.

Solar cells from the University of Alberta?

Trevor Robb’s Aug. 7, 2015 article for the Edmonton Sun (Alberta, Canada) features a research team dedicated to producing better solar cells and a facility (nanoFAB) at the University of Alberta,

But in an energy rich province like Alberta — known for its oil and gas sector — [JIllian] Buriak [chemistry professor at the University of Alberta, Canada Research chair of nanomaterials] is on a mission to shed some light on another form of energy Alberta is known for, solar energy.

So her team is dedicated to producing flexible, recyclable plastic solar cells that can be printed just like a newspaper.

In fact, they’ve already begun doing so.

In order to produce the sheet-like solar cells, Buriak and her team use nothing more than simple commercial laminators and a spray gun, not unlike something you would use to paint a car.

“We run them through this laminator that squeezes them down and turns them from something that’s not conducting to something that’s really conducting,” said Buriak.

“You could incorporate it into clothing, you could incorporate it into books, into window blinds, or unroll it on a tent when you’re camping,” said Buriak. “You could use it anywhere. Anything from simple funny things to cafe umbrellas that could allow you to charge electronic devices, to large scale things in developing countries; large scale solar cells that you could simply carry on your backpack, unroll at a medical clinic, and suddenly you have instant power.”

There are more details about Buriak’s work and information about nanoFAB in Robb’s article. As for technical information, the best I can find is in an Aug. 29, 2013 University of Alberta news release (also on EurekAlert),

University of Alberta researchers have found that abundant materials in the Earth’s crust can be used to make inexpensive and easily manufactured nanoparticle-based solar cells.

The discovery, several years in the making, is an important step forward in making solar power more accessible to parts of the world that are off the traditional electricity grid or face high power costs, such as the Canadian North, said researcher Jillian Buriak, a chemistry professor and senior research officer of the National Institute for Nanotechnology based on the U of A campus.
Buriak and her team have designed nanoparticles that absorb light and conduct electricity from two very common elements: phosphorus and zinc. Both materials are more plentiful than scarce materials such as cadmium and are free from manufacturing restrictions imposed on lead-based nanoparticles.

Buriak collaborated with U of A post-doctoral fellows Erik Luber of the U of A Faculty of Engineering and Hosnay Mobarok of the Faculty of Science to create the nanoparticles. The team was able to develop a synthetic method to make zinc phosphide nanoparticles, and demonstrated that the particles can be dissolved to form an ink and processed to make thin films that are responsive to light.

Buriak and her team are now experimenting with the nanoparticles, spray-coating them onto large solar cells to test their efficiency. The team has applied for a provisional patent and has secured funding to enable the next step to scale up manufacture.

I wonder if this news article by Robb is an attempt by Buriak to attract interest from potential investors?

Perovskite, nanorods, and solar energy

As the authors, Azhar Fakharuddin, Rajan Jose, and Thomas Brown, note in an Aug. 7, 2015 Nanowerk Spotlight article , securing energy sources is a global pursuit and pervoskite (a new wonder material for solar cells) has presented a challenge (Note: A link has been removed),

Energy security has been a top global concern motivating researchers to seek it from renewable and cost-effective resources. Solar cells, that convert sun light into electricity, hold the promise as a cheap energy alternative. The silicon and thin film photovoltaic industry have taken many strides to lower energy prices; however, continued research is required in order to extensively compete with fossil fuels.

The development of perovskite solar cells, first reported in 2009 (and with a record power conversion efficiency of 20.1 percent so far), is a possible route towards high efficiency photovoltaics that are also cost-effectiveness, owing to to their easy-processing from solution.

Question marks have however remained on their stability.

The authors (members of a research team) have recently published a paper about a method that could make perovskite solar cells more stable,

Now, a research team from University Malaysia Pahang, focussing on renewable energy, working in in collaboration with scientists from University of Rome ‘Tor Vergata’, Italy, has developed the world’s first nanorod-based perovskite solar module.

Among the three types of electron transport layers investigated, the nanorod-based devices retained the original efficiency values even after 2500 hours of shelf-life investigation, a protocol used to gauge initial stability and indoor lifetime performance.
The device employing a conventional TiO2 nanoparticle material showed nearly 60% of original performance, whereas planar devices employing a compact TiO2 layer showed below 5% of original performance, measured at similar experimental conditions.
A chemical analysis of the devices hinted that the peculiar conformation of nanorods facilitates a stable perovskite phase due to their inherent stability and macroporous nature.

If you want more detail, the research team’s Nanowerk Spotlight article is the place to look (it’s almost like a Reddit session except there’s no ‘ask me anything’ option). There’s also the team’s paper,

Vertical TiO2 Nanorods as a Medium for Stable and High-Efficiency Perovskite Solar Modules by Azhar Fakharuddin, Francesco Di Giacomo, Alessandro L. Palma, Fabio Matteocci, Irfan Ahmed, Stefano Razza, Alessandra D’Epifanio, Silvia Licoccia, Jamil Ismail, Aldo Di Carlo, Thomas M. Brown, and Rajan Jose. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b03265 Publication Date (Web): July 24, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

One final note, I’ve been meaning to publish a post about perovskite-based solar cells for a while now as the material seems to be sweeping the solar energy community and, now, it’s done.