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Solar cell leaves/flowers  (Source: Shine Solar)
Leaf-like solar cells harness energy to produce electricity

North Carolina State University researcher and his team has proved that "artificial leaves", which are water-gel-based solar mechanisms, can create electricity just like solar cells. In addition, they are much greener than silicon-based solar cells and could be less expensive. 

Dr. Orlin Velev, lead author of the study and Invista Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at NC State, created artificial leaves with the idea of using solar cells to imitate nature more closely. 

Velev accomplished this by infusing water-based gel with light-sensitive molecules, and pairing it with electrodes coated by materials such as graphite or carbon nanotubes. The sun's rays then excite the light-sensitive molecules, creating electricity. This closely resembles nature because plant molecules get excited in order to synthesize sugars needed to grow. 

Also, in order to draw in solar energy the way nature does, natural products like chlorophyll can be used in the artificial leaves to replace synthetic light-sensitive molecules to create the same reaction. The water-gel matrix in these new leaves allows for both natural products like chlorophyll and synthetic light-sensitive molecules to be used interchangeably. 

"The next step is to mimic the self-regenerating mechanisms found in plants," said Velev. "The other challenge is to change the water-based gel and light-sensitive molecules to improve the efficiency of the solar cells."

While the short-term goal would be to make these water-based photovoltaic devices more plant-like and realistic to nature, the long-term goal is to have residential and commercial roofs covered in soft sheets of the artificial-leaf solar cells. But Velev warns that such a concept is years into the future.

"We do not want to overpromise at this stage, as the devices are still of relatively low efficiency and there is a long way to go before this can become a practical technology," said Velev. "However, we believe that the concept of biologically inspired 'soft' devices for generating electricity may in the future provide an alternative for the present-day solid-state technologies."

This study, titled "Aqueous soft matter based photovoltaic devices," was published in Journal of Materials Chemistry this month.





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