Inspired by nature, researchers at the City College of New York (CCNY) can demonstrate a synthetic strategy for stabilizing bio-inspired materials for harvesting solar energy. Her results, published in the latest issue of Nature Chemistry, could represent a major breakthrough in the functionalization of molecular assemblies for future solar energy conversion technologies.
In almost every corner of the world, despite extreme hot or cold temperatures, you can find photosynthetic organisms that strive to capture solar energy. Uncovering nature’s secrets of how light can be harvested as efficiently and robustly as possible could transform the landscape of sustainable solar technologies, especially in light of rising global temperatures.
In photosynthesis, the first step (i.e., light collection) involves the interaction between light and the light-collecting antenna, which is made up of fragile materials known as supra-molecular assemblies. From green leafy plants to tiny bacteria, nature has developed a two-component system: the supra-molecular arrangements are embedded in protein or lipid structures. It is not yet clear what role this scaffold plays, but recent research suggests that nature evolved these sophisticated protein environments to stabilize their fragile supra-molecular assemblies.
“Although we cannot replicate the complexity of the protein scaffolds found in photosynthetic organisms, we have been able to adapt the basic concept of a protective scaffold to stabilize our artificial light harvesting antenna,” said Dr. Kara Ng. Her co-authors include Dorthe M. Eisele and Ilona Kretzschmar, both professors at CCNY, and Seogjoo Jang, professor at Queens College.
So far it has not been successful in transferring nature’s design principles to large-scale photovoltaic applications.
“The error could lie in the design paradigm of the current solar cell architectures,” said Eisele. However, she and her research team “do not want to improve on the solar cell designs already in place. We do want to learn from nature’s masterpieces to inspire entirely new architectures for harvesting solar energy,” she added.
Inspired by nature, the researchers show how small, cross-linking molecules can overcome obstacles to the functionalization of supra-molecular arrangements. They found that silane molecules can self-assemble into an interlocking, stabilizing framework around an artificial supermolecular light-harvesting antenna.
“We have shown that these inherently unstable materials can now survive multiple heating and cooling cycles in one device,” said Ng. Their work provides the proof-of-concept that a cage-like framework design stabilizes supra-molecular assemblies against environmental stressors such as extreme temperature fluctuations without impairing their favorable light-gathering properties.
The research was supported by the CCNY Martin and Michele Cohen Fund for Science, the US Department of Energy’s Solar Photochemistry Program, the Office of Basic Energy Sciences, and the National Science Foundation (NSF CREST IDEALS and NSF-CAREER).
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