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November 24th, 2009
Another exciting breakthrough is an electronic device that uses spinach to convert light into electrical charge, developed by US researchers. Zhang Shuguang and research collaborators at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have combined a protein complex extracted from spinach chloroplasts, with organic semiconductors, to make a solar cell that could be incorporated with solid state electronics. "Nature has been doing this for billions of years," Zhang says, "but this is the first time we've been able to harness it."
With nanotechnology and the minimalist idea of ‘less is more', thinner and lighter panels are making way to a more efficient design of a solar panel.
Zhang's team artificially stabilised the protein complex at the heart of their system, consisting of 14 protein subunits and hundreds of chlorophyll molecules, using synthetic peptides to bind small amounts of water to it, within a sealed unit.
Photons then ‘excite' coupled pairs of electrons within chlorophyll, causing an electron to transfer to a nearby receptor molecule. Plants use this transfer to complete photosynthesis. Zhang has fostered this principle into his device, feeding electrons into organic semiconductors aligned on top of a layer of glass.
Zhang encountered difficulties with the use of organic materials in system. The protein complex is kept stable for about three weeks by the peptides, and the cells convert only twelve per cent of light to electrical charge. The solution seems to point towards layering numerous cells atop each other, so that a certain amount of light can pass through.
Interestingly enough, in New Zealand other researchers are on a similar wavelength. Solar cell technology developed by Massey University's Nanomaterials Research Centre will enable New Zealanders to create electricity from sunlight 90 per cent cheaper than the current silicon-based, photo-electric solar cells.
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