A viral interven-sun

Photo by kat m research | flickr.com

In the wake of the global energy crisis, exciting research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has shed new light on improving the energy-harvesting potential of solar power cells.

The culprit, you ask? Surprisingly enough, it’s a chemically engineered virus that has improved the efficiency of some solar cells by up to 30%, allowing researchers and enthusiasts alike to envision a near future with large-scale applications.

In conventional photovoltaic cells, photons of light strike semi-conductive molecules on the surface of their panels, thereby inducing an electric current by directing the flow of the excited electrons through an induced voltage. Much of the challenge, however, comes from electrons that return to their unexcited states before entering the circuit.

This research seeks to improve this inefficiency and thereby significantly increase electrical output.  Amazingly, it is all done through the use of our ancient microscopic companions.  

Yes indeed, humanity’s tumultuous relationship with viruses has found yet another reason to rekindle its love affair, if only for the sake of this important application. The virus, which researchers have named “M13”, serves mainly to improve spatial and structural organization within the active components of the solar cell, acting as a ‘scaffold’ to separate components which function optimally at different relative positions.

Previous advancements in this technology have introduced the use of nanotubes, which are microscopic carbon-based structures capable of unprecedented strength and electrical conductivity. These structures have allowed solar energy to be focused up to 100 times more efficiently than conventional photovoltaic cells, resulting in significantly smaller panels capable of capturing similar amounts of energy.

With the recent advent of M13, further  advancement is sure to take place as the virus prevents the ‘clumping’ of nanotubes, thereby allowing electrons to flow better within the cell and decreasing the probability of the circuit being broken or disrupted.

Specifically, the virus creates proteins which hold the nanotubes firmly in place, while simultaneously producing new conductive molecules to be activated by incoming photons of light.

Although the findings at MIT show great improvement from initial solar cell prototypes, the capacity for improved efficiency exists, as even the most efficient of solar cells today is only capable of effectively harnessing about 10.6 percent of the total solar energy reaching the panel.

Research such as this, however, serves another, perhaps a more important function: it demonstrates the potential for renewable energy as a real and attainable goal, and inspires future innovation for the betterment of our planet.