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Virus ups dye-sensitised solar cell efficiency

Posted: 03 May 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:harnessing viruses  dye-sensitised solar cells  carbon nanotubes  solar cell efficiency 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have added one simple step to the dye-sensitised solar cell manufacturing process that harnesses living viruses to install highly conductive carbon nanotubes into the anode structures of dye-sensitised solar cells which is said to increase dye-sensitised solar cells' efficiency by almost one third.

Dye-sensitised solar cells are a photo-electro-chemical system that positions a semiconductor between a photo-sensitised anode and an electrolyte. Titanium dioxide nanoparticles covered with a dye absorb sunlight, releasing electrons into the anode. These electrons are then collected to power a load then returned by the cathode to the electrolyte—and the cycle continues. By harnessing a virus to lace the anode with nanotubes, efficiency was boosted from under 8 per cent to over 10.6 per cent, according to the MIT researchers.

The MIT research team was led by professor Angela Belcher and her doctoral candidates, Xiangnan Dang and Hyunjung Yi, along with professors Paula Hammond and Michael Strano. Belcher had previously demonstrated that the virus called M13 could fuel the hydrogen economy and pattern thin-film batteries. But their current results for the first time use viruses to keep embedded nanotubes in solar cells separate, so they do not clump or short-out the circuit. Each virus can hold about 10 nanotubes in place with 300 or so peptide molecules, after which the genetically engineered viruses secrete a coating of titanium dioxide.

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The M13 virus consists of a strand of DNA (coil at right) attached to a bundle of proteins called peptides (purple) which attach to the carbon nanotubes (grey) and hold them in place. A coating of titanium dioxide (yellow) attaches to dye molecules (red) which surrounds the bundle. Credit: Matt Klug, Biomolecular Materials Group, MIT.

If the technique proves successful outside the lab, nanotube-enhanced solar cells will join a vast array of microbial-based products with a global market value of Rs.7.12 lakh crore ($156 billion) in 2011, which is expected to grow to more than Rs.11.83 lakh crore ($259 billion) by 2016, according to BCC Research. Microbial-based products include everything from natural yeast for brewing beer to genetically engineered microbes, such as the M13 used by MIT, for the commercial production of insulin, biodiesel and metallurgical products.

According to Belcher, MIT's new technique adds one simple step to the dye-sensitised solar-cell manufacturing process, and can also be adapted to other types of organic and quantum-dot-based solar cells.

Funding was provided by the Italian company Eni, through the MIT Energy Initiative's Solar Futures Programme.

- R. Colin Johnson
  EE Times

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