A grand breakthrough in solar cell technology is attempted at the Birck Nanotechnology and Bindley Bioscience centers at Purdue’s Discovery Park. It involves the creating of a brand new carbon nanotube enhanced and DNA manipulated solar cell, capable of self-repair.
This achievement would increase the life expectancy of the cells and would greatly reduce the maintenance cost. Though still in basic research stage, the process of imitating natural photosynthetic systems found in plants is set to ultimately achieve industrialization.
Jong Hyun Choi, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue in charge of the project, began this work in collaboration with researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of Illinois. His team consists now in doctoral students Benjamin A. Baker and Tae-Gon Cha and undergraduate students M. Dane Sauffer and Yujun Wu.
Photo-electro-chemical cells, which convert sunlight into electricity, are being created artificially using optical nanomaterials. “The design exploits the unusual electrical properties of structures called single-wall carbon nanotubes, using them as molecular wires in light harvesting cells,” Choi declared.
The chlorophyll-like molecules called chromophores are responsible for the cell’s light-absorbing ability, but they are also degrading as a follow-up to light exposure. The technology developed by Choi replaces the photo-damaged chromophores with new ones, just like in nature. “This sort of self-regeneration is done in plants every hour,” Choi, said.
The researchers use carbon nanotubes as a platform for anchoring engineered strands of DNA, capable of building nucleotides which attach to the damaged chromophores. “The DNA recognizes the dye molecules (chromophores), and then the system spontaneously self-assembles,” said Choi.
The system’s ability to continuously be dissolved and reassembled and the molecular recognition process are vital for the success of this ground-breaking technology.
This technology would finally enable us to have a new type of photo-electro-chemical cells which would operate at full capacity indefinitely, without repair.