Tel Aviv University researchers have found a novel way to control the atoms and molecules of peptides so that they "grow" to resemble small forests of grass. These "peptide forests" repel dust and water — a perfect self-cleaning coating for windows or solar panels which, when dirty, become far less efficient.
"This is beautiful and protean research," says graduate student Lihi Adler-Abramovich, who was part of a team working under Professor Ehud Gazit in TAU's Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology. "It began as an attempt to find a new cure for Alzheimer's disease. To our surprise, it also had implications for electric cars, solar energy, and construction."
Gazit has been developing arrays of self-assembling peptides made from proteins for the past six years. His lab, in collaboration with a group led by Professor Gil Rosenman of TAU's Faculty of Engineering, has been working on new applications for this basic science for the last two years.
Using a variety of peptides, which are as simple and inexpensive to produce as the artificial sweetener aspartame, the researchers create their "self-assembled nano-tubules" in a vacuum under high temperatures. These nano-tubules can withstand extreme heat and are resistant to water.
"We are not manufacturing the actual material but developing a basic-science technology that could lead to self-cleaning windows and more efficient energy storage devices in just a few years," says Adler-Abramovich. "As scientists, we focus on pure research. Thanks to Professor Gazit's work on beta amyloid proteins, we were able to develop a technique that enables short peptides to 'self-assemble,' forming an entirely new kind of coating which is also a super-capacitor."
As a capacitor with unusually high energy density, the nano-tech material could give existing electric batteries a boost. One of the limitations of electric cars is thrust, and the team thinks their research could lead to a solution.
"Our technology may lead to a storage material with a high density," says Adler-Abramovich. "This is important when you need to generate a lot of energy in a short period of time. It could also be incorporated into today's lithium batteries."
The new material can repel rainwater, as well as the dust and dirt it carries. The coating would help save money on maintenance and cleaning, which is especially a problem in dusty deserts, where most solar farms are installed today.
The lab has already been approached to develop its coating technology commercially.