Nagging little things start to plague your existence .. a sprained ankle one year, a stiff calf every morning the next. A few too many beers and slowly a spare tyre starts to inflate uncontrollably around your middle. Suddenly you’re forty and will never be able to run as fast as you could half a lifetime ago. Eek!
Wouldn’t it be nice to be a solar panel instead? Not only could you laze around in the sun all day but once in a while a chap will come along and clean you. If you’re very lucky, you may be one of the snazzy self-healing solar panels MIT have invented .. that would really be cool!
Modern solar panels degrade and become less efficient over both the long term and during periods of prolonged sunshine. This is because the chemical bonds in the molecules which convert sunshine to energy wear out with use .. so the more persistently sunny it is, the quicker your efficiency deteriorates.
However this isn’t the case for plants. Within each chloroplast (the cells within which photosynthesis takes place) the proteins responsible are broken and down and reformed while the plant is creating energy from sunlight. This keeps the chemical bonds fresh and so ensures the chloroplasts continue to operate at near maximum efficiency.
It was this which gave Michael Strano, associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT, his brainwave. “If plants can do this, why can’t we mimic them?” he reasoned. Some time and some clever jiggery poker later, we have the Death Defying Solar Panel.
In essence his solution works in three simple stages. First of all, a specific set of molecules is mixed together: these have been engineered to spontaneously bond with one another to produce a sunshine-to-energy conversion substance. Secondly a liquid is added to this substance which breaks it back down into the constituent parts; then finally the resultant soup is passed through a filter which removes the liquid and allows the light converting substance to reform with fresh chemical bonds.
Initial trials are promising: the bind-unbind-bind process has been run continuously for 14 hours within a prototype solar cell with no drop off in electricity generation efficiency. The next stage is to increase the concentration of the solution in the cell to start to output meaningful amounts of electricity.
The invention has been hailed by Philip Collins, associate professor of experimental and condensed-matter physics at the University of California, as a breakthrough in nanotechnology. He said: “One of the remaining differences between man-made devices and biological systems is the ability to regenerate and self-repair. Strano’s work … suggests that ‘nanotechnology’ is finally preparing to advance beyond simple nanomaterials and composites into this new realm.”