What if solar cells were self-healing, like living cells? This sci-fi-sounding possibility may become a reality, thanks to new nanotech research from Purdue University, where scientists are using carbon nanotubes and DNA to increase the service life and reduce the costs of solar power.

These “artificial photosystems” exploit the unusual electrical properties of structures known as single-wall carbon nanotubes, using them as “molecular wires in light harvesting cells,” according to Jong Hyun Choi, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue. Choi’s research group is based at the Birck Nanotechnology and Bindley Bioscience centers at Purdue’s Discovery Park and his findings are reported in an online article featured on the Web site for SPIE, an international society for optics and photonics.

Purdue Solar
image via SPIE

Today’s photoelectrochemical solar cells convert sunlight into electricity and use an electrolyte (a liquid that conducts electricity) to transport electrons and create a current. These cells contain light-absorbing dyes called chromophores, which are chlorophyll-like sbustances that degrade due to exposure to sunlight–a serious issue in terms of solar cell longevity. Choi’s new technology overcomes this problem the way nature does, by continuously replacing the photo-damaged dyes with new ones. While this new type of solar cell is still undergoing basic research, Choi believes it will have applications for the solar industry.

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