When it comes to green tech, the best teacher is often that original innovator herself, Mother Nature. MIT researchers who embraced that truth have demonstrated a technology that could help a new generation of cheaper and more efficient—but also more degradable—photovoltaic cells work longer and better.
“We’re basically imitating tricks that nature has discovered over millions of years”—in particular, “reversibility, the ability to break apart and reassemble,” researcher Michael Strano said in an MIT report.
Think of how plants can use sunlight for photosynthesis without succumbing to the destructive potential of the sun’s rays. They do it by constantly regenerating. Inspired by that idea, Strano’s team developed synthetic molecules that, working in concert with light-responsive molecules and other compounds, self-assemble into a light-harvesting structure that produces an electrical current. With the addition of a surfacant, the components disassemble. When the surfacant is removed, “the compounds spontaneously assembled once again into a perfectly formed, rejuvenated photocell,” MIT reported.
Strano’s system wasn’t great at producing electricity, but his team is exploring new ways to boost its efficiency significantly. MIT cited one outside researcher, UC Irvine’s Philip Collins, who was impressed with the possibilities. “One of the remaining differences between man-made devices and biological systems is the ability to regenerate and self-repair,” Collins said. ‘Closing this gap is one promise of nanotechnology…. Strano’s work is the first sign of progress in this area, and it suggests that nanotechnology is finally preparing to advance beyond simple nanomaterials and composites into this new realm.”