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Plant-Inspired Technology Makes Solar Cells Store Energy

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ucla-solar-cellTechnology inspired by plant photosynthesis, allows solar cells to store energy for weeks, eliminating the need of batteries.

Everyone is getting a bit tired of hearing that lack of development in energy storage stands in the way of otherwise blossoming renewable energy generation. But while battery developers are spending countless sleepless nights, trying to figure out how to improve the existing bulky and pricey technology, scientists from other fields are finding ways around it, and it seems they might soon get rid of external energy storage all together.

A study by a team from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), led by chemistry professor Sarah Tolbert, reveals a novel technology that could allow solar cells to store their charge for weeks. The inspiration for this incredible development came from the natural energy generation process by plants- photosynthesis.

The team analyzed closely plant leaves and found that tiny nano-structures, which separate positively and negatively-charged molecules, are the key to increasing efficiency of photosynthesis. The scientists then decided to test weather they can replicate this in plastic solar cells.

They used two components, a polymer donor and a tiny fullerene acceptor, which form, as the team describes, a “noodle and meatball structure”. These components are carefully arranged with the UCLA technology, where some of the fullerene acceptors, or “meatballs”, are placed within the polymer “noodle” structure, while others stay on the outside. Those on the inside gather the electrons and pass them to the acceptors on the outside, where the charge is safely kept away from the polymer for up to a few weeks at a time. The components can auto-assemble when placed in water.

The technology is still in very early stages of development, but the initial findings are very promising. These gave the green light to the team, which meant that they can already start working on finding ways to incorporate it into existing solar cells.

It will probably take quite some time before commercially sold solar cells have such technology in place, but the hope is already there. Imagine how great it would be if rooftop solar panels can provide energy at night, or on the occasional gloomy day, without a need of money and space investment on bulky batteries. Maybe the glory of the big guys from Tesla and Mercedes Bentz, who are soon to be selling commercial home-based energy storage, will not last as long as we initially thought?

Image (c) UCLA Chemistry

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