Posted in | Solar Energy

Biological Material That Mimics Photosynthesis Boosts Solar Cell Performance

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An inspirational green energy solution could soon be in production as international researchers have developed a new generation of solar cells that can mimic photosynthesis.

Throughout a sequence of laboratory tests, the team modified perovskite solar cells with a biological material, known as bacteriorhodopsin (bR), improving the overall performance and stability of the cells. This research opens up the possibility to develop a new class of bioperovskite solar cells which hands a significant boost to green technology.

Today, it is considered that we live in an age of climate change littered with ecological disasters – a more academic term for this period of Earth’s history is the Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch in which humanity significantly influences Earth’s geology, ecosystems, and also climate. In the UN’s 2018 IPCC report it was stated that we are on the way to a global rise in temperatures of 3-4°C which would lead to unprecedented climate-risks events, including extreme weather events and ecological disaster.

According to NASA, the increase of atmospheric CO2 (carbon dioxide) as a result of industrial practices and the burning of fossil fuels has led to the “forcing” of climate change. Therefore, finding new green energy solutions is not to be ignored and teams of scientists and researchers across the globe are racing to find innovative ways to tackle the climate crisis. Thus, the latest pioneering approach, published on American Chemical Society journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces at acs.org, could mark a crucial point in the development of renewable solar technologies.

These findings open the door for the development of a cheaper, more environmentally friendly bioperovskite solar cell technology. In the future, we may essentially replace some expensive chemicals inside solar cells with relatively cheaper natural materials.

Shashank Priya, Co-author of the paper and Associate Vice President for Research and Professor of Materials Science at Penn State

Perovskite cells eclipse silicon-based technologies due to the fact that the distinctive crystalline structures of perovskite absorb visible light more efficiently and cost less. This makes them well suited and a much-desired technology for researchers. By adding the bR protein to the perovskite cells, the researchers observed improved efficiency from 14.5 to 17 percent.

As it stands, most perovskite solar cells are capable of converting around 23 percent of the sun’s light into energy. With the latest development the team believes that bioperovskite materials could be produced that yield even better results, further improving the prospects for a cost-effective green energy supply. “Previous studies have achieved 8 or 9 percent efficiency by mixing certain proteins inside solar cell structures,” said Priya, “But nothing has come close to 17 percent. These findings are very significant.”

Mimicking nature was the inspiration behind the project as the researchers pursued enhancing their technology via Förster Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET), a method of transferring energy across two photosensitive molecules. The FRET procedure is one that has been around for a while. According to Renugopalakrishnan Venkatesan, co-lead author on the study and professor at Northeastern University and Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard University, “It seems to be the basis of photosynthesis and can be found in technologies like the wireless transfer of energy, and even in the animal world as a mechanism for communication.”

The aim of the research is to, “create a world of bio-inspired systems,” says Venkatesan, in order to-go beyond the capabilities of organic or inorganic molecules. This is reflected in the bioperovskite solar cells as the results surpassed current energy efficiency capabilities of already known devices. This is because when adding the bR protein to the perovskite cell improved the movement of electron-hole pairs – the result of the solar cell’s light absorption process – this led to much higher photovoltaic performances as compared to basic cells lacking the bR protein.

While the research does offer some very real potential for future applications and could extend into the development of other hybrid technologies. It is not the first time scientists have turned to nature for inspiration on green energy as another recent study analyzed the light-harvesting capacity of plants for solar panel technology. With such continued efforts and each step made in the advancement of clean energy solutions there is also progress made where addressing the climate crisis is concerned.

David J. Cross, M.A

Written by

David J. Cross, M.A

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.

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