Nanocrystals May Change The Future Of Solar Power

Apr 13, 2015

New research from Brigham Young University could make solar panels more efficient in the future. To understand how this could happen, we’ll first need to understand how current solar panels work.

Solar panels absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity, but not all light carries the same amount of energy. Blues and greens, for example, have a higher energy wavelength than red.

Now imagine you are a solar panel trying to capture energy from the sun. You’d be most efficient if you could capture all of the different kinds of light—the different energies—and convert them into electricity. However, if you’re like the current kind of solar panel, you can only capture a small fragment of all of the light that you’re being bombarded with.

Ferritin
Credit wustl.edu

That’s the problem with silicon, the primary element in today’s solar panels, said BYU senior Stephen Erickson.

“We’re aiming to develop a wider range of materials that absorb different colors so we can cover more of the solar spectrum,” Erickson said.

How Erickson and the lead researchers on the project, chemistry professor Richard Watt and physics professor John Colton, are doing this is by using a small, 12 nm wide protein called ferritin. Ferritin is shaped like a hollow sphere, and researchers can insert different chemicals—or nanocrystals—inside of it to change the wavelength of light that it can absorb.

“Our bodies use it to store iron, but through some fancy chemistry we can take ferritin samples, remove that iron and put in different types of materials that will absorb light differently,” Erickson said. “So by having this wide variety of materials to absorb different wavelengths of light, we aim to make more efficient solar panels.”

Nanocrystals can be engineered to absorb different wavelengths of light.
Credit Brigham Young University

While all of the materials are still being tested in the lab right now, Erickson said the hope is that these different versions of ferritin can be layered on one solar panel, giving it the ability to absorb a wider spectrum of light—and enabling it to convert more of the sun’s rays into electricity.

“The power is from having the multiple different types of materials working in conjunction with each other,” Erickson said.

Ferritin isn’t just limited to solar panels, Erickson said. It could be used to make more efficient batteries or even for splitting water molecules to make electricity.

While research on ferritin will continue at BYU, Erickson is set to move on after graduation this spring. He’s currently deciding where to go for graduate school, where he’ll be studying physics.