Since they are only capable of converting up to 20 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, current solar panels are not very efficient. In order to generate a sufficient amount of electricity, such panels require a lot of space, often leading forests to be cut down or farms to be replaced by panels.
Now, a team of researchers led by the University of Maryland is aiming to make solar panels more efficient by harnessing plants’ energy to convert sunlight into chemical energy. Such panels would be smaller and produce the same amount of energy as those we are currently using without claiming so much space.
The scientists aim to use biological molecules to make electricity which can then be harvested to power solar devices or stored in batteries for future use. This process mainly involves leveraging molecules’ fluorescence.
“Any sort of molecule that fluoresces, gives off light. If we excite the fluorophore, it can transfer its energy to metal nanoparticles, and if the particles are close enough to each other, they will knock off electrons and generate current,” explained lead author Lahari Saha, a doctoral student in Chemistry at Maryland.
However, as the scientists stress, these processes are not only limited to molecules that fluoresce, and would in fact just require molecules that have high absorption of light, such as chlorophyll, beta carotene, or lutein, which are relatively inexpensive and easy to extract from plants.
Another benefit of such solar panels is that they would be much easier and safer to recycle than the ones we currently use, which relay on expensive materials such as silicon and contain toxic elements like lead and cadmium. By contrast, the new solar panels will consist mainly of plant-based molecules and other materials such as copper, which would make them much easier to recycle while not polluting the environment. Moreover, by selecting materials with greater longevity, these panels will also last longer and need to be replaced less frequently.
By constructing such efficient solar panels that don’t have a large environmental footprint, the experts hope to help farms maximize food production over generating energy, and, at the same time, protect the world’s forests.
The study will be presented on Wednesday, February 22 at the 67th Annual Biophysical Society Meeting in San Diego, California.
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