David Kirkpatrick

September 6, 2010

Self-assembling and reassembling solar cells

Okay, just yesterday I blogged that a lot of the time the mundane “a ha” moment that puts together well-known materials and processes leads to scientific advancement (the case I was referring to in the post was a simple acid bath technique that made creating solar cells much cheaper). And then again sometimes the big sexy breakthrough gets the headline (as usual) and really deserves it.

If this technique for solar cells that self-assembles the light-harvesting element in the cell, and then breaks it down for re-assembly essentially copying what plants do in their chloroplast, is able to reach acceptable levels of efficiency, it will be an absolute game-changer. Instead of a solar cell that’s (hopefully) constantly bombarded with the full effect of the sun and constantly degrading under the solar assault, these cells will essentially be completely renewed by each reassembly. No degradation over time, just a brand new light-harvesting element with a relatively simple chemical process.

From the second link:

The system Strano’s team produced is made up of seven different compounds, including the carbon nanotubes, the phospholipids, and the proteins that make up the reaction centers, which under the right conditions spontaneously assemble themselves into a light-harvesting structure that produces an electric current. Strano says he believes this sets a record for the complexity of a self-assembling system. When a surfactant — similar in principle to the chemicals that BP has sprayed into the Gulf of Mexico to break apart oil — is added to the mix, the seven components all come apart and form a soupy solution. Then, when the researchers removed the surfactant by pushing the solution through a membrane, the compounds spontaneously assembled once again into a perfectly formed, rejuvenated photocell.

“We’re basically imitating tricks that nature has discovered over millions of years” — in particular, “reversibility, the ability to break apart and reassemble,” Strano says. The team, which included postdoctoral researcher Moon-Ho Ham and graduate student Ardemis Boghossian, came up with the system based on a theoretical analysis, but then decided to build a prototype cell to test it out. They ran the cell through repeated cycles of assembly and disassembly over a 14-hour period, with no loss of efficiency.

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