Biologically Inspired 'Artificial Leaves' Produce Electricity

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This is a guest post by Colleen Mcguire.

A North Carolina State University team has shown that water gel-based solar devices (called: “artificial leaves”) can behave like solar cells to create electricity. The analysis has been published on-line in the Journal of Materials Chemistry by Dr. Orlin Velev, an Invista Professor associated with Chemical and Bio-molecular Engineering.

The results promote the idea of making solar cells that more closely simulate nature. They are also likely to be more affordable and more environmentally friendly than the existing standard silicon based solar cells.

The bendable devices are composed of water-based gel infused along with light-sensitive molecules (like plant chlorophyll) coupled with electrodes coated by carbon components, such as carbon nanotubes or graphite. The light-sensitive molecules get “excited” by the sun’s rays to generate electricity, similar to plant molecules that get excited to synthesize all kinds of sugar in order to grow.

Dr. Velev affirms that the analysis team hopes to be able to “learn how to imitate the materials where nature harnesses solar power.” Although manufactured light-sensitive molecules can be used, Velev says naturally extracted products, like chlorophyll, are also easily integrated because of their water-gel matrix.

Velev even imagines a future in which roofs could be covered with soft sheets of similar electrical power-generating artificial-leaf solar cells. The concept of biologically inspired ‘soft’ devices for generating electricity may in the future supply an alternative for the present-day solid-state technologies.

Colleen Mcguire creates for the solar fountains for the garden blog, her personal hobby website focused on recommendations to help property owners to spend less energy with solar energy.

Photo of a soft solar device courtesy of Ascent Solar. More solar energy facts.