When viruses and technology collide, it’s often a catastrophic ordeal. Of course, in such cases the “virus” is not a biological organism. Rather, it’s usually a dubious cyber-plot by some computer hacker bent on causing technological headaches and hysteria. So, news coming from MIT about a virus improving solar technology seems particularly interesting because, in this case, the virus is a biological organism. According to MIT, researchers there have found a way to make significant improvements to the power-conversion efficiency of solar cells by using tiny viruses to perform detailed assembly work at the microscopic level.
The “work” the viruses perform involves their interaction with carbon nanotubes. Carbon nanotubes, as we’ve seen previously, are providing potential technological advancements in the areas of new energy storage, fuel cells and thermocells. MIT states that, in the case of solar panels, these microscopic, hollow cylinders of pure carbon could enhance the efficiency of electron collection from a solar cell’s surface. However, the researchers have faced a couple of challenges when working with the nanotubes.
First, MIT says it discovered that making carbon nanotubes generally produces a mix of two types. Some of them end up acting like semiconductors, which sometimes allow electricity to flow and sometimes don’t. These are the beneficial type that improve the performance of solar cells. The other type act like metals, which function like wires in that they always allow electricity to flow. These actually reduce the performance of solar panel products. The second problem is that nanotubes tend to clump together, which reduces their effectiveness.
This is where the virus comes to the rescue. MIT researchers found that a genetically engineered version of a virus called M13, which normally infects bacteria, can be used to control the arrangement of the nanotubes on a surface, keeping the tubes separate so they can’t short out the circuits, and keeping the tubes apart so they don’t clump.
MIT says that the system its researchers tested used a type of solar cell known as dye-sensitized solar cells. However, the team seems confident its technique can be applied to other types of solar cells as well. In the tested system, the team improved power conversion efficiency from 8% to 10.6%, which represents almost a one-third improvement.
Angela Belcher, leader of the research team and Professor of Energy at MIT said this process would just add one simple step to a standard solar-cell manufacturing process and that it should be easy to adapt existing production facilities for rapid implementation. Further details on how the virus is engineered and how it performs its work can be found on MIT’s news site.