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Ancient diatoms lead to new technology for solar energy
Date:4/18/2009

CORVALLIS, Ore. Engineers at Oregon State University have discovered a way to use an ancient life form to create one of the newest technologies for solar energy, in systems that may be surprisingly simple to build compared to existing silicon-based solar cells.

The secret: diatoms.

These tiny, single-celled marine life forms have existed for at least 100 million years and are the basis for much of the life in the oceans, but they also have rigid shells that can be used to create order in a natural way at the extraordinarily small level of nanotechnology.

By using biology instead of conventional semiconductor manufacturing approaches, researchers at OSU and Portland State University have created a new way to make "dye-sensitized" solar cells, in which photons bounce around like they were in a pinball machine, striking these dyes and producing electricity. This technology may be slightly more expensive than some existing approaches to make dye-sensitized solar cells, but can potentially triple the electrical output.

"Most existing solar cell technology is based on silicon and is nearing the limits of what we may be able to accomplish with that," said Greg Rorrer, an OSU professor of chemical engineering. "There's an enormous opportunity to develop different types of solar energy technology, and it's likely that several forms will ultimately all find uses, depending on the situation."

Dye-sensitized technology, for instance, uses environmentally benign materials and works well in lower light conditions. And the new findings offer advances in manufacturing simplicity and efficiency.

"Dye-sensitized solar cells already exist," Rorrer said. "What's different in our approach are the steps we take to make these devices, and the potential improvements they offer."

The new system is based on living diatoms, which are extremely small, single-celled algae, which already have shells with the nanostructure that
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Contact: Greg Rorrer
rorrergl@engr.oregonstate.edu
541-737-3370
Oregon State University
Source:Eurekalert

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