The sun’s rays can be highly destructive to many materials and lead to a gradual degradation of many systems developed to harness it. MIT researchers have developed a new process that imitates a plant's naturally efficient repair mechanism.
Plants constantly break down their light-capturing molecules and reassemble them from scratch, so the basic structures that capture the sun’s energy are, in effect, always brand new. Michael Strano, associate professor of chemical engineering, and his team of graduate students and researchers have created a novel set of self-assembling molecules that can turn sunlight into electricity; the molecules can be repeatedly broken down and then reassembled quickly, just by adding or removing an additional solution.
One of Strano’s long-term research goals has been to find ways to imitate principles found in nature using nanocomponents. In the case of the molecules used for photosynthesis in plants, the reactive form of oxygen produced by sunlight causes the proteins to fail in a very precise way. As Strano describes it, the oxygen “unsnaps a tether that keeps the protein together,” but the same proteins are quickly reassembled to restart the process.
This action all takes place inside tiny capsules called chloroplasts that reside inside every plant cell — and which is where photosynthesis happens. The chloroplast is “an amazing machine,” Strano says. “They are remarkable engines that consume carbon dioxide and use light to produce glucose,” a chemical that provides energy for metabolism.
To imitate that process, the team produced synthetic molecules called phospholipids that form disks; these disks provide structural support for other molecules that actually respond to light, in structures called reaction centers, which release electrons when struck by particles of light. The disks, carrying the reaction centers, are in a solution where they attach themselves spontaneously to carbon nanotubes — wire-like hollow tubes of carbon atoms that are a few billionths of a meter thick yet stronger than steel and capable of conducting electricity a thousand times better than copper. The nanotubes hold the phospholipid disks in a uniform alignment so that the reaction centers can all be exposed to sunlight at once, and they also act as wires to collect and channel the flow of electrons knocked loose by the reactive molecules.
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 by pushing the solution through a membrane, the compounds spontaneously assembled once again into a perfectly formed, rejuvenated photocell.
The team came up with the system based on a theoretical analysis, but then decided to build a prototype cell to test it out. They ran the cell through repeated cycles of assembly and disassembly over a 14-hour period, with no loss of efficiency.
Strano says that in devising novel systems for generating electricity from light, researchers don’t often study how the systems change over time. For conventional silicon-based photovoltaic cells, there is little degradation, but with many new systems being developed — either for lower cost, higher efficiency, flexibility, or other improved characteristics — the degradation can be very significant.
The individual reactions of these new molecular structures in converting sunlight are about 40 percent efficient, or about double the efficiency of today’s best solar cells.