Researchers at Cornell University have developed a process for building an organic molecular-scale framework that could be used to collect solar energy. They did it using phthalocyanines, which are common dyes used in blue jeans and numerous other products.
The researchers came up with a way to assemble the molecules into a precisely structured two-dimensional “solar paper” that is far more flexible, and potentially far cheaper, than conventional solar panels. Though still a long way from development into actual solar cells, the structure could speed future research along by answering foundational questions about the movement of electrons through organic materials.
The Incredible Disappearing Solar Cell
In the field of solar energy, the thickness of solar cells has been rapidly diminishing, from conventional solar panels to thin-film panels, down to solar ink and solar paint. There is even a “solar Shrinky-Dinks” thin film technology in development. Though conventional solar panels will probably be in use for many years to come, thinner forms have a number of advantages. They can be used in a wider variety of applications, and by virtue of their low weight they are cheaper and easier to ship. They also have the potential to be less expensive to manufacture.
Making “Solar Paper” From Blue Jean Dye
Because phthalocyanines are very close in structure to chlorophyll, and chlorophyll is the substance in plants that absorbs sunlight, phthalocyanines have been a focus of solar energy research. Until now, the problem has been to get phthalocyanines and other organic molecules to organize into a predictable, reliable structure. The Cornell researchers solved the problem by applying a simple catalyst in combination with another stable molecule. The result was “neatly ordered” two-dimensional sheets that stack on each other in a lattice pattern. The next trick is to figure out what molecules to plug into the lattice pores, in order to form a light, flexible and durable material that collects solar energy efficiently and can be manufactured on a commercial scale.
Image: Blue jeans by lifecreations on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.