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Updated: September 13, 2010 18:40 IST

Method to enhance solar energy found

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Solar panels on the roof of one of Rockefeller Center's buildings. If the nanotechnology takes off, panels like these would soon be obsolete. File photo
AP Solar panels on the roof of one of Rockefeller Center's buildings. If the nanotechnology takes off, panels like these would soon be obsolete. File photo

MIT chemical engineers have found that by using carbon nanotubes (hollow tubes of carbon atoms) solar energy can be concentrated 100 times more than a regular photovoltaic cell.

Such nanotubes could form antennas that capture and focus light energy, potentially allowing much smaller and more powerful solar arrays.

Michael Strano, the Charles and Hilda Roddey Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and leader of the research team and his students tell that their new carbon nanotube antenna, or “solar funnel” might also be useful for any other application that requires light to be concentrated, such as night-vision goggles or telescopes.

Solar panels generate electricity by converting photons (packets of light energy) into an electric current, reports Nature.

Strano’s nanotube antenna boosts the number of photons that can be captured and transforms the light into energy that can be funneled into a solar cell.

The antenna consists of a fibrous rope about 10 micrometers (millionths of a meter) long and four micrometers thick, containing about 30 million carbon nanotubes. Strano’s team built, for the first time, a fibre made of two layers of nanotubes with different electrical properties - specifically, different bandgaps.

In any material, electrons can exist at different energy levels. When a photon strikes the surface, it excites an electron to a higher energy level, which is specific to the material. The interaction between the energized electron and the hole it leaves behind is called an exciton, and the difference in energy levels between the hole and the electron is known as the bandgap.

The inner layer of the antenna contains nanotubes with a small bandgap, and nanotubes in the outer layer have a higher bandgap. That’s important because excitons like to flow from high to low energy. In this case, that means the excitons in the outer layer flow to the inner layer, where they can exist in a lower (but still excited) energy state.

Therefore, when light energy strikes the material, all of the excitons flow to the centre of the fibre, where they are concentrated. The study has been published in the Sept. 12 online edition of the journal Nature Materials.


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