Laying the Groundwork for New Solar Energy Technology
By LIDA TUNESI
When aiming for sustainability, scientists often look to Mother Nature for inspiration. CUNY researchers recently managed to imitate a strategy that plants use for photosynthesis, and the research could lead to new methods for capturing solar energy.
The proof-of-concept paper appears in Nature Chemistry. Former Ph.D. student Kara Ng, former postdoctoral researchers Megan Webster and William Carbery, current postdoc Nikunjkumar Visaveliya, Ph.D. student Pooja Gaikwad, and Professors Seogjoo Jang (Queens College, the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY), Ilona Kretzschmar (City College of New York, GC), and Dorthe Eisele (CCNY, CUNY ASRC) authored the study.
Deep inside the cells of plants and photosynthetic bacteria is a system of molecules that help absorb and transfer energy from sunlight. This system is called a light-harvesting complex, or antenna. Scientists recently discovered that these antennae are supported by a scaffold, made of proteins or lipids. While the purpose of this scaffold isn’t completely clear, researchers think it helps the light-harvesting molecules do their job and simultaneously supports their otherwise fragile structure. To date, engineers haven’t used human-made antenna in optoelectronics, because they are too unstable without such support.
In the new work, the scientists were able to imitate the scaffold using silane molecules—made of silicon and hydrogen—that self-assemble into a cage-like structure. This cage supports a synthetic imitation of the light-harvesting antenna, just like the natural scaffold.
The researchers saw that the cage helped the antenna do its energy-transfer job even under extreme heat stress. Since rising temperatures due to climate change could make current solar energy conversion devices less efficient, a scaffold technology could help secure solar energy harvesting into the future.
Eisele told CCNY that she and the other researchers “do not aim to improve the solar cell designs that already exist. But we want to learn from nature’s masterpieces to inspire entirely new solar energy harvesting architectures.”