While human beings have made some definite strides in harnessing the sun’s power, a team of researchers in Australia is looking at how plants do it (since they’ve, you know, done it for a lot longer). According to ABC Australia’s News in Science, a molecular electronics group at the University of Sydney is attempting to create synthetic chlorophyll, with the aim of creating solar panels that reach much higher efficiencies than those currently available:
“Nature has evolved this very efficient process, over millions of years, for harvesting light and then converting it into energy,” says [Professor Max] Crossley.
“We’re trying to mimic aspects of natural photosynthesis.”
Dense arrays of chlorophyll molecules in leaves are responsible for converting light energy to electrical energy and then to chemical energy.
Critical to this function of chlorophyll is the pigment porphyrin, which is attached to a central magnesium ion.
Crossley and team have made a synthetic form of chlorophyll that performs the first part of that process, converting light energy to electrical energy.
As in nature, when a large number of these synthetic molecules are arranged in a dense array they act in concert to efficiently collect photons of light.
“There has to be a lot of them because if there was only one it would be a very inefficient process,” says Crossley.
The science on this is rather dense, but ultimately involves trying to create nanomaterials that mimic the action of leaves and chlorophyll. If it works, this will be a major achievement: leaves convert solar energy at a 30-40% efficiency rate, compared to 12% for the average silicon-based solar cell. The scientists also believe that a breakthough in this area will push the development of thin-film solar cells even further: “In the long term what we’re trying to do is have something we can simply paint on a roof, like a thin layer,” said Crossley. I’d imagine this would be an economic winner, also — while I have no guess how much such a product would cost commercially, the possible tripling of efficiency would have to make solar power much more competitive in the market. Very cool!