This column presents technologies that have applications in commercial areas, possibly creating the products of tomorrow. To learn more about each technology, see the contact information provided for that innovation.
Bacteria-Powered Solar Cell
University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers have found a cheap, sustainable way to build a solar cell using bacteria that converts light to energy. The cell works as efficiently in dim light as in bright light. This innovation could be a step toward wider adoption of solar power in places where overcast skies are common. With further development, these solar cells — called “biogenic” because they are made of living organisms — could become as efficient as the synthetic cells used in conventional solar panels. Previous efforts to build biogenic solar cells focused on extracting the natural dye that bacteria use for photosynthesis — a costly and complex process. The UBC solution was to leave the dye in the bacteria. The materials can be manufactured economically and sustainably, and could perform at comparable efficiencies as conventional solar cells.
Contact: Lou Corpuz-Bosshart, University of British Columbia
Wafer-Level Fabrication of Lab-on-a-Chip Devices
Designed to collect and separate amino acids towards finding the building blocks of life on other planets, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center's process of fabricating lab-on-a-chip devices could be essential to many other lab-on-a-chip or microfluidic applications. The process involves a microchannel chip created from a silicon bottom wafer and Pyrex top wafer anodically bonded. Specialized microbeads with specific structure and surface chemistry are placed along the channels. Different species of analyte molecules will interact more strongly with the column chemistry and will therefore take longer to traverse the column, i.e., have a longer retention time. In this way, the channels separate molecular species based on their chemistry. Applications include chemical separation and chemical detection.
Contact: Goddard Space Flight Center
Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed super-stretchy polymers with self-healing abilities that could lead to longer-lasting consumer products. The polymers can elongate about 1,000 to 5,600 percent before breaking. After breaking, they can be healed with complete restoration of elasticity by merely touching adjacent pieces. By tailoring the properties of segments and how they link to the polymer, the scientists tuned tensile strength, toughness, and elastic recovery. Stretchy polymeric strips were used to create a permeable membrane that selectively separated two gases. After that membrane broke, it self-healed to once again separate the gases. Tailoring the degree of hydrogen bonding could be exploited to make other self-healing materials. The materials provide a platform for fabrication of functional films, membranes, coatings, and devices with prolonged lifetimes.