"It's necessary to understand these kinds of properties in the molecules in order to make devices out of them. We've been studying silicon for 40 years, so we know what happens to electrons there," Bonnell said. "We didn't know what happens to electrons on dry electrodes with these proteins; we didn't even know if they would remain photoactive when attached to an electrode."
Designing circuits and devices with silicon is inherently easier than with proteins. The electrical properties of a large chunk of a single element can be measured and then scaled down, but complex molecules like these proteins cannot be scaled up. Diagnostic systems that could measure their properties with nanometer sensitivity simply did not exist.
The researchers therefore needed to invent both a new way of a measuring these properties and a controlled way of making the photovoltaic proteins that would resemble how they might eventually be incorporated into devices in open-air, everyday environments, rather than swimming in a chemical solution.
To solve the first problem, the team developed a new kind of atomic force microscope technique, known as torsional resonance nanoimpedance microscopy. Atomic force microscopes operate by bringing an extremely narrow silicon tip very close to a surface and measuring how the tip reacts, providing a spatial sensitivity of a few nanometers down to individual atoms.
"What we've done in our version is to use a metallic tip and put an oscillating electric field on it. By seeing how electrons react to the field, we're able to measure more complex interactions and more complex properties, such as capacitance," Bonnell said.
Bohdana Discher's group designed the self-assembling proteins much as they had done before but took the additional step of stamping them onto sheets of graphite electrodes. This manufacturing principle and the ability to measure the resulting devices could have a variety of a
|Contact: Evan Lerner|
University of Pennsylvania