My nephew is about to enter his Senior year at the University of Florida, where he is (somehow) managing a double-major in Mechanical Engineering and Aeronautical Engineering (apparently it skips around in my family).
For the last few years I've been trying to nudge him into nanotechnology, partially because I believe it will have applications in all areas of science, but also because of the potential for more effective Solar technology as well as energy efficiency. He says he's been thinking about it, which in nephew-speak means, "I wish you'd quit bugging me about this, Uncle Steve." ;)
But recently I've also been pondering photosynthesis, and the way plant life has evolved over billions of years to capture and process Solar energy. It didn't surprise me to find out I wasn't the only person thinking we might benefit from nature's trial and error, or that the guys over at N.C. State were already working on it:
Inside every leaf and blade of grass, chlorophyll molecules power tiny chemical factories that transform the energy in sunlight into sugars trees and plants need to grow. Hoping to replicate that factory, NC State professors Jon Lindsey and Gregory Parsons are working on a solar cell technology that uses organic materials. The inorganic materials currently used in photovoltaic cells are expensive to process, Parsons says, and making them often produces harmful greenhouse gases as well. “Nature can collect energy from the sun cheaply,” he says. “Humans ought to be able to do it with cheap organic materials, too.”
By the way, just in case anyone's wondering, the Wolfpack rules. Just thought I would, you know, throw that in there.
Lindsey, the Glaxo Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, is creating molecules that mimic chlorophyll. The symmetrical, snowflake-like molecules, called porphyrins, have a metal atom at the core surrounded by four nitrogen atoms—similar to chlorophyll. Lindsey has experimented with different metals, such as zinc and magnesium, and also is working to chain the porphyrins together in different arrays. “Simply having chlorophyll in a plant is not enough,” Parsons says. “The molecules need to be arranged in a certain matrix for the energy to be transferred efficiently from one to the next.”
I actually understood most of that, although I couldn't turn around and explain it to the person next to me.
Although initial attempts at an organic solar cell have proven less efficient than existing photovoltaic devices—they are even farther away from matching the chlorophyll-run factories inside plants—Parsons says the concept will develop over time. “Mother Nature has had millions of years to perfect the system,” he says. “Humans are just getting started.”
Yes we are, professor, but with people like you and your colleagues working on it I think we'll do just fine. :)