Genetically engineered viruse doubles the efficiency of Solar Cells: MIT researchers

Developers at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) revealed that by exploiting the technique used by the plants in photosynthesis, they have designed genetically improved viruses, which enables the Solar Cells to generate energy with nearly double efficiency. They further added that plants have evolved over billion of years and studying the evolution results in successful development of the technique that achieves nearly 100 percent efficiency in transporting solar energy captured by the solar receptors and transporting it to the reaction site where conversions take place. The researchers claim that when compared to plants, our solar cells stand nowhere when it comes to efficiency. Therefore, the study of ‘quantum mechanics’ involved in photosynthesis helped in improvement of the functioning of our solar cells.

Plants use a concept of quantum mechanics sometimes also referred as ‘quantum weirdness’ that allows a particle to exist in more than one place at a single instant of time. MIT researchers used this technique in designing the improvised solar cells. For the study, researchers from MIT with the help of Eni, the Italian energy company used genetically engineered viruses. While explaining Seth Lloyd, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT said that chromophores in plant’s leave produce particle known as ‘exciton’ during photosynthesis.The exciton is a quantum particle of energy that jumps between chromophores to reach to the reaction center.

Answer to the nearly hundred percent efficiency of plants lies in the path chosen by the exciton to reach the reaction centre where the energy is harnessed. Excitons reach these reaction centres by hopping  between chromophores, meanwhile they chose the shortest available path to reach the reaction centre. However, for this to accomplish chromophores should be arranged with the right amount of gap between them.

Using the same concept, MIT researchers used genetically engineered viruses and were able to bond it with multiple synthetic chromophores or organic dyes. For the research, study authors produced virus with variable spacing in between the chromophores and tested the efficiency and later they found which spacing would perform best.

After finding the correct chromophores spacing, researchers were able to improve the speed of excitons by more than 200 percent. Also, it was found that excitons now travelled a much larger distance before dissipating the entire energy. Although the study is still under initial stages but it has shown the way for future research. Since, the world is already facing scarcity of energy and non-renewable sources of energy will exhaust in few decade, efficient solar energy is a promising alternative.

The study appeared in the journal Nature Materials.

First published on: Oct 19, 2015, 06:35 PM
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