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Biotech Power Science

Self-Assembling Photovoltaic Tech From MIT 128

Posted by Soulskill
from the bright-ideas dept.
telomerewhythere writes "Michael Strano and his team at MIT have made a self-assembling and indefinitely repairable photovoltaic cell based on the principle found in chloroplasts inside plant cells. '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 is added to the mix, the seven components all come apart and form a soupy solution. Then, when the researchers removed the surfactant, the compounds spontaneously assembled once again into a perfectly formed, rejuvenated photocell.'"
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Self-Assembling Photovoltaic Tech From MIT

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  • by Khyber (864651) <techkitsune@gmail.com> on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @04:37AM (#33496280) Homepage Journal

    Now all we need is to mimic Chlorophyll F and start capturing everything from beginning IR (720nm) on down. I'd love to see a solar cell that can respond to all of the wavelengths currently covered by terrestrial and marine plant life.

  • Re:First naysay (Score:3, Interesting)

    by geogob (569250) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @04:47AM (#33496330)

    The nice things about plant cells or structure is that you can grow them. In this case I can only guess that it would probably even be more efficient than to "mine" forest. Also you wouldn't need so much of it because you don't use it for its energy content, but for its energy conversion capacity. That's huge difference.

  • by Acetylane_Rain (1894120) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @04:54AM (#33496356)
    The technology's best application is probably in outer space, where we don't have to worry about wavelengths (since there's so much more sun out there). I can even envision its application as a possibly more compact plant substitute for the life support system of a long-duration space flight, say, to Mars.
  • Re:WTF? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mr_mischief (456295) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @05:03AM (#33496370) Journal

    Per the article it's not nearly as biological as "plant-inspired" makes it sound.

    They are using the photovoltaic effect to generate electricity on some set of proteins. Then carbon nanotubes conduct the electricity from the proteins to a common circuit. They are using phospholipids (whatever phospholipids are) along with the nanotubes to coerce proper alignment between the nanotubes and the proteins in the photovoltaic reaction sites.

    The combination works pretty well (40% efficiency with sparsely populated functional structures in the solution for the prototype) until it starts to break down. The inspiration from plants is mainly that they can introduce a substance (a surfactant more specifically, although the blurb doesn't specify which) that breaks the stuff down fast, then filter the surfactant out through a membrane and the working portion self-assembles again at full efficiency.

    It's this repeatable self-assembly that was biologically inspired, and it's probably necessary for high-efficiency photovoltaic solar cells since pretty much everything more efficient than silicon does break down over time. By not just accounting for the breakdown, but doing it early and often and performing a repair phase through self-assembly, it is hoped they can have high efficiency solar cells with long lifespans.

    That's gleaned from TFA, which isn't much longer than what I wrote.

  • by Bayoudegradeable (1003768) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @05:46AM (#33496502)
    I hate to be a crazy fanboi, but is this a "Holy shit" news moment?? I have been telling my middle school geography students for years that plants can harness solar power cheaply and easily. Are plants smarter than us? Maybe we are turning a corner with this one. Watch out plants, we are on to you! And we just might be on to the greatest break in energy production known to mankind. Once we harness the power of the sun we step up a rung on the advanced civilization ladder. Hooray for bad ass MIT scientists!!
  • by IndustrialComplex (975015) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @06:31AM (#33496654)

    Are plants smarter than us? Maybe we are turning a corner with this one.

    Depends.

    Give me 2 billion years to make it work through trial and error, and if I can't figure it out by then, I'll concede that plants may be smarter.

    And as an alternative, let me paraphrase:

    Are plants smarter than me? Maybe, maybe. I have yet to meet one that can outsmart axe.

  • by IndustrialComplex (975015) on Tuesday September 07, 2010 @08:13AM (#33497198)

    The one with the greatest genetic drift would be considered to have evolved more.

    One of the issues with this is that we do not know the 'in between'. It is possible that a species may have evolved to a middle phase, but then evolved back to something which appears to be similar to the original.

    Of course such a claim requires evidence, and you can find instances of this in species today. Consider chickens. There is a gene, which if activated, will cause the chicken to grow teeth, much like we expect their distant ancestors to have had. But even further back, their ancestor's ancestors may not have had teeth at all.

    Of course, the distant ancestor's ancestors genetic code likely did not have the code for teeth in the first place, and you could look at that as evidence for your 'more evolved' Yet it is possible that some genes were evolved and discarded in a manner so that there is no trace that they were there in the first place. Color vision in mammals is another trait that is suspected to have been evolved, discarded, and lately reintroduced.

    Yet ignoring all that, if we WERE to base the concept of 'more evolved' on genetic drift from the source, then the concept that plants are 'more evolved' seems to be false given that plants tend to be much more genetically 'stable' than animals. We find very similar relatives to today's plants in the fossilized remains, yet if we were to compare todays animals with those found before the dinosaurs, one could only conclude that 'more' evolution (in the form of genetic drift) occured in animals than plants.

    That said, I still stand by my original statement that when it comes to evolution, it is nearly pointless to try and classify levels or extent of evolution as if it were some sort of race.

The key elements in human thinking are not numbers but labels of fuzzy sets. -- L. Zadeh

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