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Modified virus used to significantly boost solar cell efficiency

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April 27, 2011

The M13 virus consists of a strand of DNA (the figure-8 coil on the right) attached to a b...

The M13 virus consists of a strand of DNA (the figure-8 coil on the right) attached to a bundle of proteins called peptides - the virus coat proteins which attach to the carbon nanotubes and hold them in place. A coating of titanium dioxide (yellow spheres) attached to dye molecules (pink spheres) surrounds the bundle. (Image: Matt Klug, Biomolecular Materials Group)

Last year, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that they had successfully used carbon nanotubes for "funneling" and concentrating electrons in photovoltaic cells – this meant that smaller solar cells created using the nanotubes could produce as much or more electricity than larger conventional cells. Now, the efficiency of these nanotube solar cells is being boosted further ... with the help of a virus.

One of the reported problems with the nanotubes has been their tendency to clump together and short each other out. To address that problem, a team of MIT scientists called upon a genetically-engineered version of a virus known as M13. When introduced to the nanotube "forest," the virus' peptides (polymers made from amino acids) bonded tightly with the nanotubes, both holding them in place AND apart from one another. One virus is capable of holding five to ten nanotubes, allotting about 300 peptide molecules to each tube.

Once the virus had performed that service, the scientists then changed the acidity of its environment, causing it to produce titanium dioxide (TiO2) and coat each nanotube with the substance. As the solar cells being tested were of the dye-sensitized variety, utilizing TiO2 as their active layer, this also helped the devices to better covert solar energy to electricity.

Between the superior alignment and the production of TiO2, the virus-assisted nanotubes increased the solar cells' power conversion efficiency by about a third, from 8 percent to 10.6. While the technology was tested on dye-sensitized solar cells, the scientists say that it should also improve the performance of other types of solar cells, such as quantum-dot and organic.

Additionally, the virus makes the nanotubes water-soluble, which allows for them to be introduced to cells via a water-based, room temperature process. The scientists believe that it would be relatively easy to add such a procedure to the solar cell production process.

The MIT research is published online this week in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
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1 Comment

So when I get sick with this virus - pop me out in the sun and I start making power?

Mr Stiffy
9th April, 2012 @ 07:58 pm PDT
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