Tag Archives: solar panels

Cyborg bacteria to reduce carbon dioxide

This video is a bit technical but then it is about work being presented to chemists at the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition Aug. 20 -24, 2017,

For a more plain language explanation, there’s an August 22, 2017 ACS news release (also on EurekAlert),

Photosynthesis provides energy for the vast majority of life on Earth. But chlorophyll, the green pigment that plants use to harvest sunlight, is relatively inefficient. To enable humans to capture more of the sun’s energy than natural photosynthesis can, scientists have taught bacteria to cover themselves in tiny, highly efficient solar panels to produce useful compounds.

“Rather than rely on inefficient chlorophyll to harvest sunlight, I’ve taught bacteria how to grow and cover their bodies with tiny semiconductor nanocrystals,” says Kelsey K. Sakimoto, Ph.D., who carried out the research in the lab of Peidong Yang, Ph.D. “These nanocrystals are much more efficient than chlorophyll and can be grown at a fraction of the cost of manufactured solar panels.”

Humans increasingly are looking to find alternatives to fossil fuels as sources of energy and feedstocks for chemical production. Many scientists have worked to create artificial photosynthetic systems to generate renewable energy and simple organic chemicals using sunlight. Progress has been made, but the systems are not efficient enough for commercial production of fuels and feedstocks.

Research in Yang’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley, where Sakimoto earned his Ph.D., focuses on harnessing inorganic semiconductors that can capture sunlight to organisms such as bacteria that can then use the energy to produce useful chemicals from carbon dioxide and water. “The thrust of research in my lab is to essentially ‘supercharge’ nonphotosynthetic bacteria by providing them energy in the form of electrons from inorganic semiconductors, like cadmium sulfide, that are efficient light absorbers,” Yang says. “We are now looking for more benign light absorbers than cadmium sulfide to provide bacteria with energy from light.”

Sakimoto worked with a naturally occurring, nonphotosynthetic bacterium, Moorella thermoacetica, which, as part of its normal respiration, produces acetic acid from carbon dioxide (CO2). Acetic acid is a versatile chemical that can be readily upgraded to a number of fuels, polymers, pharmaceuticals and commodity chemicals through complementary, genetically engineered bacteria.

When Sakimoto fed cadmium and the amino acid cysteine, which contains a sulfur atom, to the bacteria, they synthesized cadmium sulfide (CdS) nanoparticles, which function as solar panels on their surfaces. The hybrid organism, M. thermoacetica-CdS, produces acetic acid from CO2, water and light. “Once covered with these tiny solar panels, the bacteria can synthesize food, fuels and plastics, all using solar energy,” Sakimoto says. “These bacteria outperform natural photosynthesis.”

The bacteria operate at an efficiency of more than 80 percent, and the process is self-replicating and self-regenerating, making this a zero-waste technology. “Synthetic biology and the ability to expand the product scope of CO2 reduction will be crucial to poising this technology as a replacement, or one of many replacements, for the petrochemical industry,” Sakimoto says.

So, do the inorganic-biological hybrids have commercial potential? “I sure hope so!” he says. “Many current systems in artificial photosynthesis require solid electrodes, which is a huge cost. Our algal biofuels are much more attractive, as the whole CO2-to-chemical apparatus is self-contained and only requires a big vat out in the sun.” But he points out that the system still requires some tweaking to tune both the semiconductor and the bacteria. He also suggests that it is possible that the hybrid bacteria he created may have some naturally occurring analog. “A future direction, if this phenomenon exists in nature, would be to bioprospect for these organisms and put them to use,” he says.

For more insight into the work, check out Dexter Johnson’s Aug. 22, 2017 posting on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

“It’s actually a natural, overlooked feature of their biology,” explains Sakimoto in an e-mail interview with IEEE Spectrum. “This bacterium has a detoxification pathway, meaning if it encounters a toxic metal, like cadmium, it will try to precipitate it out, thereby detoxifying it. So when we introduce cadmium ions into the growth medium in which M. thermoacetica is hanging out, it will convert the amino acid cysteine into sulfide, which precipitates out cadmium as cadmium sulfide. The crystals then assemble and stick onto the bacterium through normal electrostatic interactions.”

I’ve just excerpted one bit, there’s more in Dexter’s posting.

Metamaterial could supply air conditioning with zero energy consumption

This is exciting provided they can scale up the metamaterial for industrial use. A Feb. 9, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new metamaterial that could change air conditioning  from the University of Colorado at Boulder (Note: A link has been removed),

A team of University of Colorado Boulder engineers has developed a scalable manufactured metamaterial — an engineered material with extraordinary properties not found in nature — to act as a kind of air conditioning system for structures. It has the ability to cool objects even under direct sunlight with zero energy and water consumption.

When applied to a surface, the metamaterial film cools the object underneath by efficiently reflecting incoming solar energy back into space while simultaneously allowing the surface to shed its own heat in the form of infrared thermal radiation.

The new material, which is described today in the journal Science (“Scalable-manufactured randomized glass-polymer hybrid metamaterial for daytime radiative cooling”), could provide an eco-friendly means of supplementary cooling for thermoelectric power plants, which currently require large amounts of water and electricity to maintain the operating temperatures of their machinery.

A Feb. 9, 2017 University of Colorado at Boulder news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: Links have been removed),

The researchers’ glass-polymer hybrid material measures just 50 micrometers thick — slightly thicker than the aluminum foil found in a kitchen — and can be manufactured economically on rolls, making it a potentially viable large-scale technology for both residential and commercial applications.

“We feel that this low-cost manufacturing process will be transformative for real-world applications of this radiative cooling technology,” said Xiaobo Yin, co-director of the research and an assistant professor who holds dual appointments in CU Boulder’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Materials Science and Engineering Program. Yin received DARPA’s [US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] Young Faculty Award in 2015.

The material takes advantage of passive radiative cooling, the process by which objects naturally shed heat in the form of infrared radiation, without consuming energy. Thermal radiation provides some natural nighttime cooling and is used for residential cooling in some areas, but daytime cooling has historically been more of a challenge. For a structure exposed to sunlight, even a small amount of directly-absorbed solar energy is enough to negate passive radiation.

The challenge for the CU Boulder researchers, then, was to create a material that could provide a one-two punch: reflect any incoming solar rays back into the atmosphere while still providing a means of escape for infrared radiation. To solve this, the researchers embedded visibly-scattering but infrared-radiant glass microspheres into a polymer film. They then added a thin silver coating underneath in order to achieve maximum spectral reflectance.

“Both the glass-polymer metamaterial formation and the silver coating are manufactured at scale on roll-to-roll processes,” added Ronggui Yang, also a professor of mechanical engineering and a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

“Just 10 to 20 square meters of this material on the rooftop could nicely cool down a single-family house in summer,” said Gang Tan, an associate professor in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering and a co-author of the paper.

In addition to being useful for cooling of buildings and power plants, the material could also help improve the efficiency and lifetime of solar panels. In direct sunlight, panels can overheat to temperatures that hamper their ability to convert solar rays into electricity.

“Just by applying this material to the surface of a solar panel, we can cool the panel and recover an additional one to two percent of solar efficiency,” said Yin. “That makes a big difference at scale.”

The engineers have applied for a patent for the technology and are working with CU Boulder’s Technology Transfer Office to explore potential commercial applications. They plan to create a 200-square-meter “cooling farm” prototype in Boulder in 2017.

The invention is the result of a $3 million grant awarded in 2015 to Yang, Yin and Tang by the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).

“The key advantage of this technology is that it works 24/7 with no electricity or water usage,” said Yang “We’re excited about the opportunity to explore potential uses in the power industry, aerospace, agriculture and more.”

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

Scalable-manufactured randomized glass-polymer hybrid metamaterial for daytime radiative cooling by Yao Zhai, Yaoguang Ma, Sabrina N. David, Dongliang Zhao, Runnan Lou, Gang Tan, Ronggui Yang, Xiaobo Yin. Science  09 Feb 2017: DOI: 10.1126/science.aai7899

This paper is behind a paywall.

Members of the research team show off the metamaterial (?) Courtesy: University of Colorado at Boulder

I added the caption to this image, which was on the University of Colorado at Boulder’s home page where it accompanied the news release headline on the rotating banner.

Turning gold into see-through rubber for an updated Rumpelstiltskin story

Rumpelstiltskin is a fairy tale whereby a young girl is trapped by her father’s lie that she can spin straw into gold. She is forced to spin gold by the King under pain of execution when an imp offers to help in exchange for various goods. As she succeeds each time, the King demands more until finally she has nothing left to trade for the imp’s help. Well, there is one last thing: her first-born child. She agrees to the bargain and she marries the King. On the birth of their first child, the imp reappears and under pressure of her pleas makes one last bargain. She must guess his name which she does, Rumplestiltskin. (The full story along with variants is here in this Wikipedia entry.)

With this latest research, we have a reverse Rumpelstiltskin story where gold is turned into something else according to a June 13, 2016 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Flexible solar panels that could be rolled up for easy transport and other devices would benefit from transparent metal electrodes that can conduct electricity, are stretchable, and resist damage following repeated stretching. Researchers found that topology and the adhesion between a metal nanomesh and the underlying substrate played key roles in creating such materials. The metal nanomesh can be stretched to three times its length while maintaining a transparency comparable to similar commercial materials used in solar cells and flat panel displays. Also, nanomeshes on pre-stretched slippery substrates led to electrodes that didn’t wear out, even after being stretched 50,000 times (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Fatigue-free, superstretchable, transparent, and biocompatible metal electrodes”).

Tuning topology and adhesion of metal nanomeshes has led to super stretchable, transparent electrodes that don’t wear out. The scanning electron microscopy image shows the structure of a gold mesh created with a special lithographic technique that controlled the dimensions of the mesh structure. Optimizing this structure and its adhesion to the substrate was key to achieving super stretchability and long lifetimes in use—nanomeshes on pre-stretched slippery substrates did not show signs of wear even after repeated stretching, up to 50,000 cycles.

Tuning topology and adhesion of metal nanomeshes has led to super stretchable, transparent electrodes that don’t wear out. The scanning electron microscopy image shows the structure of a gold mesh created with a special lithographic technique that controlled the dimensions of the mesh structure. Optimizing this structure and its adhesion to the substrate was key to achieving super stretchability and long lifetimes in use—nanomeshes on pre-stretched slippery substrates did not show signs of wear even after repeated stretching, up to 50,000 cycles.

A June 9, 2016 US Dept. of Energy news release,which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Next-generation flexible electronics require highly stretchable and transparent electrodes. Fatigue, structural damage due to repeated use, is deadly in metals as it leads to poor conductivity and it commonly occurs in metals with repeated stretching—even with short elongations. However, few electronic conductors are transparent and stretchable, even fewer can be cyclically stretched to a large strain without causing fatigue. Now researchers led by the University of Houston found that optimizing topology of a metal nanomesh and its adhesion to an underlying substrate improved stretchability and eliminated fatigue, while maintaining transparency. A special lithographic technique called “grain boundary lithography” controlled the dimensions of the mesh structure. The metal nanomesh remained transparent after being stretched to three times its length. Gold nanomeshes on prestretched slippery substrates impressively showed no wear when stretched 50,000 times. The slippery surface advantageously allowed the structure of the nanomesh to reorient to relax the stress. Such electrically conductive, flexible, and transparent electrodes could lead to next-generation flexible electronics such as advanced solar cells.  The nanomesh electrodes are also promising for implantable electronics because the nanomeshes are biocompatible.

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

Fatigue-free, superstretchable, transparent, and biocompatible metal electrodes by Chuan Fei Guo, Qihan Liu, Guohui Wang, Yecheng Wang, Zhengzheng Shi, Zhigang Suo, Ching-Wu Chu, and Zhifeng Ren. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112 no. 40,  12332–12337, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1516873112

This paper appears to be open access.

Squeezing light into extremely thin layers

A May 4, 2016 Rice University (US) news release (also on EurekAlert) describes research on molybdenum disulfide and its light absorption properties,

Mechanics know molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) as a useful lubricant in aircraft and motorcycle engines and in the CV and universal joints of trucks and automobiles. Rice University engineering researcher Isabell Thomann knows it as a remarkably light-absorbent substance that holds promise for the development of energy-efficient optoelectronic and photocatalytic devices.

“Basically, we want to understand how much light can be confined in an atomically thin semiconductor monolayer of MoS2,” said Thomann, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering and of chemistry. “By using simple strategies, we were able to absorb 35 to 37 percent of the incident light in the 400- to 700-nanometer wavelength range, in a layer that is only 0.7 nanometers thick.”

Thomann and Rice graduate students Shah Mohammad Bahauddin and Hossein Robatjazi have recounted their findings in a paper titled “Broadband Absorption Engineering To Enhance Light Absorption in Monolayer MoS2,” which was recently published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Photonics. The research has many applications, including development of efficient and inexpensive photovoltaic solar panels.

“Squeezing light into these extremely thin layers and extracting the generated charge carriers is an important problem in the field of two-dimensional materials,” she said. “That’s because monolayers of 2-D materials have different electronic and catalytic properties from their bulk or multilayer counterparts.”

Thomann and her team used a combination of numerical simulations, analytical models and experimental optical characterizations. Using three-dimensional electromagnetic simulations, they found that light absorption was enhanced 5.9 times compared with using MoS2 on a sapphire substrate.

“If light absorption in these materials was perfect, we’d be able to create all sorts of energy-efficient optoelectronic and photocatalytic devices. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve,” Thomann said.

She is pleased with her lab’s progress but concedes that much work remains to be done. “The goal, of course, is 100 percent absorption, and we’re not there yet.”

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

Broadband Absorption Engineering to Enhance Light Absorption in Monolayer MoSby Shah Mohammad Bahauddin, Hossein Robatjazi, and Isabell Thomann. ACS Photonics, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsphotonics.6b00081
Publication Date (Web): April 27, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

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.

Unboiling egg technology can cut through carbon nanotubes

One of 2015’s big science stories, Flinders University’s ‘egg unboiler’ (also known as, a vortex fluidic device). has made the news again in a March 11, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Technology used by scientists to unboil an egg is being adapted to precisely cut through carbon nanotubes used in solar panel manufacturing and cancer treatment.

Scientists from Flinders University in South Australia have proven their Vortex Fluidic Device’s ability to slice through carbon nanotubes with great precision.

A March 11, 2016 story written by Caleb Radford for The Lead, which originated the news item, notes the advantages to using this technology for slicing carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and prospects for commercialization,

Device creator and Flinders University Professor Colin Raston said the carbon nanotubes could be commercialised within 12 months.

“Importantly for this technology is that we have uniformity in products,” he said.

“It opens it up for applications in drug delivery if you can get all of the carbon nanotubes to about 100 nanometres … 100 nanometres is the ideal length for getting into tumours so you can actually functionalise them to target cancer cells.

“Uniformity in products also means that you can improve the solar cell efficiency in solar cell devices.”

Flinders University scientists last year were awarded an Ig Nobel Award for creating the Vortex Fluidic Device and using it to unboil an egg.

The device can also be used to slice CNTs accurately to an average length of 170 nanometres using only water, a solvent and a laser.

It is also a simpler and cheaper process than previous methods, which resulted in random lengths that made it difficult to deliver drugs to patients and transfer electrons for solar panel manufacturing.

Flinders University PhD student Kasturi Vimalanathan, who played a key role in discovering new applications for the device, said the machines ability to cut carbon nanotubes to a similar length significantly increased the efficiency of solar cells.

“They shorten the carbon nanotubes to fit in all the chemicals so it can withstand high temperatures,” she said.

“It increases the efficiency and enhances the photoelectric conversion because they can provide a shorter transportation pathway for these electrons.

“It’s a one step method we can scale up. We can see cheaper solar panels on the back of this development.”

Here’s an image of Ralston, presumably with his Vortex Fluidic Device,

Professor Colin Raston received global attention and won an Ig Nobel prize on his way to becoming one of the biggest science stories of 2015. Courtesy Flinders University, Australia

Professor Colin Raston received global attention and won an Ig Nobel prize on his way to becoming one of the biggest science stories of 2015. Courtesy Flinders University, Australia

A Dec. 18, 2015 Flinders University blog posting announced Ralston’s Ig Nobel,

When Flinders University’s Professor Colin Raston unboiled an egg earlier this year with his ‘Vortex Fluidic Device’, in a feat previously considered impossible by science, he made TV screens and front pages all over the world, generating a veritable tsunami of ‘eggscellent’ puns.

The global impact of his achievement transformed the softly spoken South Australia Premier’s Professorial Research Fellow in Clean Technology into an internationally recognised figure overnight – and culminated in him receiving a prestigious Ig Nobel prize in September [2015].

In recognition of the massive amount of attention Professor Raston’s achievement received for Australian research, it has today been hailed as one of the top ten weird and wonderful Australian science stories of 2015 by the Australian Science and Media Centre (AusSMC).

Responding to the announcement, Professor Raston said he had been thrilled with the response to his achievement and had been ‘living the dream’ since.

“We were very interested in how the Vortex Fluidic Device might control protein folding, and the breakthrough with my collaborator at UCI, Greg Weiss, simplifies this, in a fraction of the time, minimising waste generation and energy usage. What this amounted to was unboiling an egg,” he said.

Who would have thought a device for unboiling eggs could be used to cut carbon nanotubes? Clearly, Kasturi Vimalanathan. Amazing.

For anyone interested and/or unfamiliar with the Ig Nobel prizes, there’s my Sept. 17, 2013 posting.

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.

Interfaces are the device—organic semiconductors and their edges

Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC; Canada) have announced a startling revelation according to an Oct. 6, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

As the push for thinner and faster electronics continues, a new finding by University of British Columbia scientists could help inform the design of the next generation of cheaper, more efficient devices.

The work, published this week in Nature Communications, details how electronic properties at the edges of organic molecular systems differ from the rest of the material.

An Oct. 6, 2015 UBC news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Organic [as in carbon-based] materials–plastics–are of great interest for use in solar panels, light emitting diodes and transistors. They’re low-cost, light, and take less energy to produce than silicon. Interfaces–where one type of material meets another–play a key role in the functionality of all these devices.

“We found that the polarization-induced energy level shifts from the edge of these materials to the interior are significant, and can’t be neglected when designing components,” says UBC PhD researcher Katherine Cochrane, lead author of the paper.

‘While we were expecting some differences, we were surprised by the size of the effect and that it occurred on the scale of a single molecule,” adds UBC researcher Sarah Burke, an expert on nanoscale electronic and optoelectronic materials and author on the paper.

The researchers looked at ‘nano-islands’ of clustered organic molecules. The molecules were deposited on a silver crystal coated with an ultra-thin layer of salt only two atoms deep. The salt is an insulator and prevents electrons in the organic molecules from interacting with those in the silver–the researchers wanted to isolate the interactions of the molecules.

Not only did the molecules at the edge of the nano-islands have very different properties than in the middle, the variation in properties depended on the position and orientation of other molecules nearby.

The researchers, part of UBC’s Quantum Matter Institute, used a simple, analytical model to explain the differences which can be extended to predict interface properties in much more complex systems, like those encountered in a real device.

Herbert Kroemer said in his Nobel Lecture that ‘The interface is the device’ and it’s equally true for organic materials,” says Burke. [emphasis mine] “The differences we’ve seen at the edges of molecular clusters highlights one effect that we’ll need to consider as we design new materials for these devices, but likely they are many more surprises waiting to be discovered.”

Cochrane and colleagues plan to keep looking at what happens at interfaces in these materials and to work with materials chemists to guide the design rules for the structure and electronic properties of future devices.

Methods

The experiment was performed at UBC’s state-of-the-art Laboratory for Atomic Imaging Research, which features three specially designed ultra-quiet rooms that allow the instruments to sit in complete silence, totally still, to perform their delicate measurements. This allowed the researchers to take dense data sets with a tool called a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM) that showed them the energy levels in real-space on the scale of single atoms.

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

Pronounced polarization-induced energy level shifts at boundaries of organic semiconductor nanostructures by K. A. Cochrane, A. Schiffrin, T. S. Roussy, M. Capsoni, & S. A. Burke. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 8312 doi:10.1038/ncomms9312 Published 06 October 2015

This paper is open access. Yes, I borrowed from Nobel Laureate, Herbert Kroemer for the headline. As Woody Guthrie (legendary American folksinger) once said, more or less, “Only steal from the best.”

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.

Windows as solar panels

Thanks to Dexter Johnson’s Aug. 27, 2015 posting, I’ve found another type of ‘smart’ window (I have written many postings about nanotechnology-enabled windows, especially self-cleaning ones); this window is a solar panel (Note: Links have been removed),

In joint research between the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and the University of Milan-Bicocca (UNIMIB) in Italy, researchers have spent the last 16 months perfecting a technique that makes it possible to embed quantum dots into windows so that the window itself becomes a solar panel.

Of course, this is not the first time someone thought that it would be a good idea to make windows into solar collectors. But this latest iteration marks a significant development in the evolution of the technology. Previous technologies used organic emitters that limited the size of the concentrators to just a few centimeters.

The energy conversion efficiency the researchers were able to acheive with the solar windows was around 3.2 percent, which stands up pretty well when compared with state-of-the-art quantum dot-based solar cells that have reached 9 percent conversion efficiency.

An August 24, 2015 US Los Alamos National Laboratory news release, which inspired Dexter’s posting, describes the research and the US-Italian collaboration in more detail,

A luminescent solar concentrator [LSC] is an emerging sunlight harvesting technology that has the potential to disrupt the way we think about energy; It could turn any window into a daytime power source.

“In these devices, a fraction of light transmitted through the window is absorbed by nanosized particles (semiconductor quantum dots) dispersed in a glass window, re-emitted at the infrared wavelength invisible to the human eye, and wave-guided to a solar cell at the edge of the window,” said Victor Klimov, lead researcher on the project at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. “Using this design, a nearly transparent window becomes an electrical generator, one that can power your room’s air conditioner on a hot day or a heater on a cold one.”

… The work was performed by researchers at the Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics (CASP) of Los Alamos, led by Klimov and the research team coordinated by Sergio Brovelli and Francesco Meinardi of the Department of Materials Science of the University of Milan-Bicocca (UNIMIB) in Italy.

The news release goes on to describe the precursor work which made this latest step forward possible,

In April 2014, using special composite quantum dots, the American-Italian collaboration demonstrated the first example of large-area luminescent solar concentrators free from reabsorption losses of the guided light by the nanoparticles. This represented a fundamental advancement with respect to the earlier technology, which was based on organic emitters that allowed for the realization of concentrators of only a few centimeters in size.

However, the quantum dots used in previous proof-of-principle devices were still unsuitable for real-world applications, as they were based on the toxic heavy metal cadmium and were capable of absorbing only a small portion of the solar light. This resulted in limited light-harvesting efficiency and strong yellow/red coloring of the concentrators, which complicated their application in residential environments.

Here’s how they solved the problem (from the news release),

Klimov, CASP’s director, explained how the updated approach solves the coloring problem: “Our new devices use quantum dots of a complex composition which includes copper (Cu), indium (In), selenium (Se) and sulfur (S). This composition is often abbreviated as CISeS. Importantly, these particles do not contain any toxic metals that are typically present in previously demonstrated LSCs.”

“Furthermore,” Klimov noted, “the CISeS quantum dots provide a uniform coverage of the solar spectrum, thus adding only a neutral tint to a window without introducing any distortion to perceived colors. In addition, their near-infrared emission is invisible to a human eye, but at the same time is ideally suited for most common solar cells based on silicon.”

Francesco Meinardi, professor of Physics at UNIMIB, described the emerging work, noting, “In order for this technology to leave the research laboratories and reach its full potential in sustainable architecture, it is necessary to realize non-toxic concentrators capable of harvesting the whole solar spectrum.”

“We must still preserve the key ability to transmit the guided luminescence without reabsorption losses, though, so as to complement high photovoltaic efficiency with dimensions compatible with real windows. The aesthetic factor is also of critical importance for the desirability of an emerging technology,” Meinardi said. [emphasis mine]

I couldn’t agree more with Professor Meinardi. You’re much more likely to adopt something that’s good for you and the planet if you like the look. Following on that thought, you’re much more likely to adopt solar panel windows if they’re aesthetically pleasing.

However, there is still a problem to be solved,

Hunter McDaniel, formerly a Los Alamos CASP postdoctoral fellow and presently a quantum dot entrepreneur (UbiQD founder and president), added, “with a new class of low-cost, low-hazard quantum dots composed of CISeS, we have overcome some of the biggest roadblocks to commercial deployment of this technology.”

“One of the remaining problems to tackle is reducing cost, but already this material is significantly less expensive to manufacture than alternative quantum dots used in previous LSC demonstrations,” McDaniel said.

Nonetheless, they have high hopes the technology can be commercialized (although as Dexter notes, it’s probably not going to be in the near future), from the news release,

A key element of this work is a procedure comparable to the cell casting industrial method used for fabricating high optical quality polymer windows. It involves a new UNIMIB protocol for encapsulating quantum dots into a high-optical quality transparent polymer matrix. The polymer used in this study is a cross-linked polylaurylmethacrylate, which belongs to the family of acrylate polymers. Its long side-chains prevent agglomeration of the quantum dots and provide them with the “friendly” local environment, which is similar to that of the original colloidal suspension. This allows one to preserve light emission properties of the quantum dots upon encapsulation into the polymer.

Sergio Brovelli, the lead researcher on the Italian team, concluded: “Quantum dot solar window technology, of which we had demonstrated the feasibility just one year ago, now becomes a reality that can be transferred to the industry in the short to medium term, allowing us to convert not only rooftops, as we do now, but the whole body of urban buildings, including windows, into solar energy generators.”

“This is especially important in densely populated urban area where the rooftop surfaces are too small for collecting all the energy required for the building operations,” he said. He proposes that the team’s estimations indicate that by replacing the passive glazing of a skyscraper such as the One World Trade Center in NYC (72,000 square meters divided into 12,000 windows) with our technology, it would be possible to generate the equivalent of the energy need of over 350 apartments.

“Add to these remarkable figures, the energy that would be saved by the reduced need for air conditioning thanks to the filtering effect by the LSC, which lowers the heating of indoor spaces by sunlight, and you have a potentially game-changing technology towards “net-zero” energy cities,” Brovelli said.

For anyone interested in this latest work on energy harvesting and windows, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Highly efficient large-area colourless luminescent solar concentrators using heavy-metal-free colloidal quantum dots by Francesco Meinardi, Hunter McDaniel, Francesco Carulli, Annalisa Colombo, Kirill A. Velizhanin, Nikolay S. Makarov, Roberto Simonutti, Victor I. Klimov, & Sergio Brovelli. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.178 Published online 24 August 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.