Mind & Matter


Scientists Develop Regenerating Solar Cells

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Experiment with elf-repairing synthetic chloroplast. Photo: Patrick Gillooly, MIT.


As the race to develop more affordable solar energy technologies persists, scientists continue to pursue the deep secrets of photosynthesis. One surprising discovery is the frequent self-repairing capability of leaf cells. Because sunlight can be quite damaging, proteins within leaf cells are actively recycled as rapidly as every 45 minutes in direct sunlight.

Researchers at MIT have exploited this insight by producing synthetic chloroplast cells capable of reoccurring self-assembly. The cells are made up of carbon nanotube structures reinforced by synthetic phospholipids, as well as various molecules that convert light into energy. When a surfactant makes contact with the cells, the cells disintegrate into their constituent components—only to reassemble again once the surfactant is removed. According to the researchers, this process is infinitely repeatable.

The artificial chloroplast currently operates at 40 percent efficiency, which is high considering the best efficiency for crystalline Si cells remains under 30 percent.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.