Hydrogen is the lightest and most plentiful element on Earth and in our universe. So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that scientists are pursuing hydrogen as a clean, carbon-free, virtually limitless energy source for cars and for a range of other uses, from portable generators to telecommunications towers—with water as the only byproduct of combustion.
While there remain scientific challenges to making hydrogen-based energy sources more competitive with current automotive propulsion systems and other energy technologies, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have developed a new materials recipe for a battery-like hydrogen fuel cell—which surrounds hydrogen-absorbing magnesium nanocrystals with atomically thin graphene sheets—to push its performance forward in key areas.
The graphene shields the nanocrystals from oxygen and moisture and contaminants, while tiny, natural holes allow the smaller hydrogen molecules to pass through. This filtering process overcomes common problems degrading the performance of metal hydrides for hydrogen storage.
These graphene-encapsulated magnesium crystals act as “sponges” for hydrogen, offering a very compact and safe way to take in and store hydrogen. The nanocrystals also permit faster fueling, and reduce the overall “tank” size.
“Among metal hydride-based materials for hydrogen storage for fuel-cell vehicle applications, our materials have good performance in terms of capacity, reversibility, kinetics and stability,” said Eun Seon Cho, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley Lab and lead author of a study related to the new fuel cell formula, published recently in Nature Communications.
In a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle using these materials, known as a “metal hydride” (hydrogen bound with a metal) fuel cell, hydrogen gas pumped into a vehicle would be chemically absorbed by the magnesium nanocrystaline powder and rendered safe at low pressures.
Jeff Urban, a Berkeley Lab staff scientist and co-author, said, “This work suggests the possibility of practical hydrogen storage and use in the future. I believe that these materials represent a generally applicable approach to stabilizing reactive materials while still harnessing their unique activity—concepts that could have wide-ranging applications for batteries, catalysis, and energetic materials.”
The research, conducted at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry and Advanced Light Source, is part of a National Lab Consortium, dubbed HyMARC (Hydrogen Materials—Advanced Research Consortium) that seeks safer and more cost-effective hydrogen storage, and Urban is Berkeley Lab’s lead scientist for that effort.
The U.S. market share for all electric-drive vehicles in 2015, including full-electric, hybrids and plug-in hybrid vehicles, was 2.87 percent, which amounts to about 500,000 electric-drive vehicles out of total vehicle sales of about 17.4 million, according to statistics reported by the Electric Drive Transportation Association, a trade association promoting electric-drive vehicles.
Hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles haven’t yet made major in-roads in vehicle sales, though several major auto manufacturers including Toyota, Honda, and General Motors, have invested in developing hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Indeed, Toyota released a small-production model called the Mirai, which uses compressed-hydrogen tanks, last year in the U.S.
A potential advantage for hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, in addition to their reduced environmental impact over standard-fuel vehicles, is the high specific energy of hydrogen, which means that hydrogen fuel cells can potentially take up less weight than other battery systems and fuel sources while yielding more electrical energy.
A measure of the energy storage capacity per weight of hydrogen fuel cells, known as the “gravimetric energy density,” is roughly three times that of gasoline. Urban noted that this important property, if effectively used, could extend the total vehicle range of hydrogen-based transportation, and extend the time between refueling for many other applications, too.
More R&D is needed to realize higher-capacity hydrogen storage for long-range vehicle applications that exceed the performance of existing electric-vehicle batteries, Cho said, and other applications may be better suited for hydrogen fuel cells in the short term, such as stationary power sources, forklifts and airport vehicles, portable power sources like laptop battery chargers, portable lighting, water and sewage pumps and emergency services equipment.
Cho said that a roadblock to metal hydride storage has been a relatively slow rate in taking in (absorption) and giving out (desorption) hydrogen during the cycling of the units. In fuel cells, separate chemical reactions involving hydrogen and oxygen produce a flow of electrons that are channeled as electric current, creating water as a byproduct.
The tiny size of the graphene-encapsulated nanocrystals created at Berkeley Lab, which measure only about 3-4 nanometers, or billionths of a meter across, is a key in the new fuel cell materials’ fast capture and release of hydrogen, Cho said, as they have more surface area available for reactions than the same material would at larger sizes.
Another key is protecting the magnesium from exposure to air, which would render it unusable for the fuel cell, she added.
Working at The Molecular Foundry, researchers found a simple, scalable and cost-effective “one pan” technique to mix up the graphene sheets and magnesium oxide nanocrystals in the same batch. They later studied the coated nanocrystals’ structure using X-rays at Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source. The X-ray studies showed how hydrogen gas pumped into the fuel cell mixture reacted with the magnesium nanocrystals to form a more stable molecule called magnesium hydride while locking out oxygen from reaching the magnesium.
“It is stable in air, which is important,” Cho said.
Next steps in the research will focus on using different types of catalysts—which can improve the speed and efficiency of chemical reactions—to further improve the fuel cell’s conversion of electrical current, and in studying whether different types of material can also improve the fuel cell’s overall capacity, Cho said.
More information: Eun Seon Cho et al. Graphene oxide/metal nanocrystal multilaminates as the atomic limit for safe and selective hydrogen storage, Nature Communications (2016). DOI: 10.1038/ncomms10804
“Our climate change solution is two fold: To transform the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into valuable products and to provide greenhouse gas emission-free alternatives to today’s industrial and transportation fossil fuel processes,” Stuart Licht, professor of chemistry at George Washington University
An interdisciplinary team of scientists has worked out a way to make electric vehicles that are not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative, capable of actually reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide as they operate. They have done so by demonstrating how the graphite electrodes used in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric automobiles can be replaced with carbon material recovered from the atmosphere.
The Solar Thermal Electrochemical Process (STEP) converts atmospheric carbon dioxide into carbon nanotubes that can be used in advanced batteries. (Image: Julie Turner, Vanderbilt University)
“Our climate change solution is two fold: To transform the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into valuable products and to provide greenhouse gas emission-free alternatives to today’s industrial and transportation fossil fuel processes,” Stuart Licht, professor of chemistry at George Washington University said.
“In addition to better batteries other applications for the carbon nanotubes include carbon composites for strong, lightweight construction materials, sports equipment and car, truck and airplane bodies.” The unusual pairing of carbon dioxide conversion and advanced battery technology is the result of a collaboration between Dr. Licht, and the laboratory of assistant professor of mechanical engineering Cary Pint at Vanderbilt University.Licht adapted the lab’s solar thermal electrochemical process (STEP) so that it produces carbon nanotubes from carbon dioxide and with Pint by incorporating them into both lithium-ion batteries like those used in electric vehicles and electronic devices and low-cost sodium-ion batteries under development for large-scale applications, such as the electric grid. In lithium-ion batteries, the nanotubes replace the carbon anode used in commercial batteries.
The team demonstrated that the carbon nanotubes gave a small boost to the performance, which was amplified when the battery was charged quickly. In sodium-ion batteries, the researchers found that small defects in the carbon, which can be tuned by STEP, can unlock stable storage performance over 3.5 times above that of sodium-ion batteries with graphite electrodes. Most importantly, both carbon-nanotube batteries were exposed to about 2.5 months of continuous charging and discharging and showed no sign of fatigue.
Published on Feb 25, 2016: Video interview with Cary Pint explaining this research.
Scientists from Vanderbilt and George Washington universities have worked out a way to make electric vehicles not just carbon neutral but carbon negative by demonstrating how the graphite electrodes used in the lithium-ion batteries can be replaced with carbon recovered from the atmosphere.
“This trailblazing research has achieved yet another amazing milestone with the incorporation of the carbon nanotubes produced by Stuart Licht’s STEP reduction of carbon dioxide process into batteries for electric vehicles and large scale storage,” said Michael King, chair of GW’s Department of Chemistry. “We are thrilled by this translation of basic research into potentially useful consumer products while mitigating atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup. This is a win-win for everyone!”
The researchers estimate that with a battery cost of $325 per kWh (the average cost of lithium-ion batteries reported by the Department of Energy in 2013), a kilogram of carbon dioxide has a value of about $18 as a battery material – six times more than when it is converted to methanol – a number that only increases when moving from large batteries used in electric vehicles to the smaller batteries used in electronics.
And unlike methanol, combining batteries with solar cells provides renewable power with zero greenhouse emissions, which is needed to put an end to the current carbon cycle that threatens future global sustainability.
Licht also proposes a modified flue system for combustion plants that incorporates this process could be self-sustaining, as exemplified by a new natural gas power plant with zero carbon dioxide emissions. That’s because the side product of the process is pure oxygen, which plants could then use for further combustion. The calculated total cost per metric tonne of CNTs would be much less expensive than current synthetic methods.
“This approach not only produces better batteries but it also establishes a value for carbon dioxide recovered from the atmosphere that is associated with the end-user battery cost unlike most efforts to reuse CO2 that are aimed at low-valued fuels, like methanol, that cannot justify the cost required to produce them,” said Pint.
Source: Vanderbilt University
Genesis Nanotechnology, Inc. ~ “Great Things from Small Things”
Researchers involved in a national effort to develop cancer treatments that harness nanotechnology are recommending pivotal changes in the field because experiments with laboratory animals and efforts based on current assumptions about drug delivery have largely failed to translate into successful clinical results.
The assessment was advanced in a perspective piece that (“Targeting the Tumor Microenvironment”; pdf) appeared in the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Nanotechnology Plan 2015, a 10-year roadmap concerning the use of nanotechnology to attack cancer.
The complex microenvironment of tumors is presenting a challenge in developing effective anticancer treatments
The complex microenvironment of tumors is presenting a challenge in developing effective anticancer treatments that attempt to harness nanotechnology. Researchers are recommending pivotal changes in the field of cancer nanotechnology because experiments with laboratory animals and efforts based on current assumptions about drug delivery have largely failed to translate into successful clinical results. (Image: Bumsoo Han, Kinam Park, Murray Korc) (click on image to enlarge)
Researchers are trying to perfect “targeted delivery” methods using various agents, including an assortment of tiny nanometer-size structures, to selectively attack tumor tissue. However, the current direction of research has brought only limited progress, according to the authors of the article.
“The bottom line is that so far there are only a few successful nanoparticle formulations approved and clinically used, so we need to start thinking out of the box,” said Bumsoo Han, a Purdue University associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering.
One approach pursued by researchers has been to design nanoparticles small enough to pass through pores in blood vessels surrounding tumors but too large to pass though the pores of vessels in healthy tissue. The endothelial cells that make up healthy blood vessels are well organized with tight junctions between them. However, the endothelial cells in blood vessels around tumors are irregular and misshapen, with loose gaps between the cells.
“We should realize that having a specific nanosize or functionality alone is not enough to guarantee good drug delivery to target tumors,” said Kinam Park, a professor of pharmaceutics and Purdue’s Showalter Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering. “The tumor microenvironment is just too complex to overcome using this strategy alone.”
The two authored the article with Murray Korc, the Myles Brand Professor of Cancer Research at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
The authors pointed out that research with laboratory mice has rarely translated into successful clinical results in humans, suggesting that a more effective approach might be to concentrate on research using in-vitro experiments that mimic human physiology. For example, one new system under development, called a tumor-microenvironment-on-chip (T-MOC) device, could allow researchers to study the complex environment surrounding tumors and the barriers that prevent the targeted delivery of therapeutic agents.
The approach could help drug makers solve a daunting obstacle: even if drugs are delivered to areas near the target tumor cells, the treatment still is hindered by the complex microenvironment of tumors.
“We used to think that if we just killed the tumor cell it would cure the cancer, but now we know it’s not just the cancer cells alone that we have to deal with,” Korc said. “There are a lot of different cells and blood vessel structure, making for a complex environment that supports the cancer cells.”
An “extracellular matrix” near tumors includes dense collagen bundles and a variety of enzymes, growth factors and cells. For example, surrounding pancreatic tumors is a “stromal compartment” containing a mixture of cells called stromal cells, activated cancer-associated fibroblasts and inflammatory immune cells.
“Particularly for pancreatic cancer, the stromal tissue is much bigger than the tumor itself,” Korc said.
In addition, a compound called hyaluronic acid in this stromal layer increases the toughness of tumor microenvironment tissue, making it difficult for nanoparticles and drugs to penetrate.
“It’s dense, like scar tissue, so it’s more difficult for drugs coming out of the blood vessel to diffuse through this tissue,” Han said.
Another challenge is to develop water-soluble drugs to effectively deliver medicines.
“The cancer drugs need to be aqueous because the body resorbs them better, but a lot of the current chemotherapy drugs have low solubility and usually need different types of solvents to increase their solubility,” Park said.
The T-MOC approach offers some hope of learning how to design more effective cancer treatments.
“Recent advances in tissue engineering and microfluidic technologies present an opportunity to realize in-vitro platforms as alternatives to animal testing,” Park said. “Tumor cells can be grown in 3D matrices with other relevant stromal cells to more closely mirror the complexity of solid tumors in patients. The current ability of forming 3D-perfused tumor tissue needs to be advanced further to create an accurate tumor microenvironment.”
Such a major shift in research focus could play a role in developing personalized medicine, or precision medicine, tailored to a particular type of cancer and specific patients. More effective treatment might require various “priming agents” in combination with several drugs to be administered simultaneously or sequentially.
“This kind of research currently involves a very large number of experiments, and it makes animal testing expensive and time consuming,” Park said. “Moreover, small animal data have not been good predictors of clinical outcome. Thus, it is essential to develop in-vitro test methods that can represent the microenvironment of human tumors.”
Splitting water is a two-step process, and in a new study, researchers have performed one of these steps (reduction) with 100% efficiency. The results shatter the previous record of 60% for hydrogen production with visible light, and emphasize that future research should focus on the other step (oxidation) in order to realize practical overall water splitting. The main application of splitting water into its components of oxygen and hydrogen is that the hydrogen can then be used to deliver energy to fuel cells for powering vehicles and electronic devices.
The researchers, Philip Kalisman, Yifat Nakibli, and Lilac Amirav at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel, have published a paper on the perfect efficiency for the water reduction half-reaction in a recent issue of Nano Letters.
“I strongly believe that the search for clean and renewable energy sources is crucial,” Amirav toldPhys.org. “With the looming energy crisis on one hand, and environmental aspects, mainly global warming, on the other, I think this is our duty to try and amend the problem for the next generation.
“Our work shows that it is possible to obtain a perfect 100% photon-to-hydrogen production efficiency, under visible light illumination, for the photocatalytic water splitting reduction half-reaction. These results shatter the previous benchmarks for all systems, and leave little to no room for improvement for this particular half-reaction. With a stable system and a turnover frequency of 360,000 moles of hydrogen per hour per mole of catalyst, the potential here is real.”
When an H2O molecule splits apart, the three atoms don’t simply separate from each other. The full reaction requires two H2O molecules to begin with, and then proceeds by two separate half-reactions. In the oxidation half-reaction, four individual hydrogen atoms are produced along with an O2 molecule (which is discarded). In the reduction half-reaction, the four hydrogen atoms are paired up into two H2 molecules by adding electrons, which produces the useful form of hydrogen: H2 gas.
In the new study, the researchers showed that the reduction half-reaction can be achieved with perfect efficiency on specially designed 50-nm-long nanorods placed in a water-based solution under visible light illumination. The light supplies the energy required to drive the reaction forward, with the nanorods acting as photocatalysts by absorbing the photons and in turn releasing electrons needed for the reaction.
The 100% efficiency refers to the photon-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency, and it means that virtually all of the photons that reach the photocatalyst generate an electron, and every two electrons produce one H2 molecule. At 100% yield, the half-reaction produces about 100 H2 molecules per second (or one every 10 milliseconds) on each nanorod, and a typical sample contains about 600 trillion nanorods.
One of the keys to achieving the perfect efficiency was identifying the bottleneck of the process, which was the need to quickly separate the electrons and holes (the vacant places in the semiconductor left after the electrons leave), and remove the holes from the photocatalyst. To improve the charge separation, the researchers redesigned the nanorods to have just one platinum catalyst instead of two. The researchers found that the efficiency increased from 58.5% with two platinum catalysts to 100% with only one.
Going forward, the researchers plan to further improve the system. The current demonstration requires a very high pH, but such strong basic conditions are not always ideal in practice. Another concern is that the cadmium sulfide (CdS) used in the nanorod becomes corroded under prolonged light exposure in pure water. The researchers are already addressing these challenges with the goal to realize practical solar-to-fuel technology in the future.
“We hope to implement our design rules, experience and accumulated insights for the construction of a system capable of overall water splitting and genuine solar-to-fuel energy conversion,” Amirav said.
“The photocatalytic hydrogen generation presented here is not yet genuine solar-to-fuel energy conversion, as hole scavengers are still required. CdS is unfortunately not suitable for overall water splitting since prolonged irradiation of its suspensions leads to photocorrosion. We have recently demonstrated some breakthrough on this direction as well. The addition of a second co-catalyst, such as IrO2 or Ru, which can scavenge the holes from the semiconductor and mediate their transfer to water, affords CdS-based structures the desired photochemical stability. I believe this is an important milestone.”
A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
On a comparative scale, if a marble were a nanometer, then one meter would be the size of the Earth
Nanoscience and nanotechnology involve the ability to see and to control individual atoms and molecules. Everything on Earth is made up of atoms—the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the buildings and houses we live in, and our own bodies. (Watch the Video Below)
But something as small as an atom is impossible to see with the naked eye. In fact, it’s impossible to see with the microscopes typically used in a high school science classes. The microscopes needed to see things at the nanoscale were invented relatively recently—about 30 years ago.
Once scientists had the right tools, such as the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and the atomic force microscope (AFM), the age of nanotechnology was born.
Although modern nanoscience and nanotechnology are quite new, nanoscale materials were used for centuries. Alternate-sized gold and silver particles created colors in the stained glass windows of medieval churches hundreds of years ago. The artists back then just didn’t know that the process they used to create these beautiful works of art actually led to changes in the composition of the materials they were working with.
Today’s scientists and engineers are finding a wide variety of ways to deliberately make materials at the nanoscale to take advantage of their enhanced properties such as higher strength, lighter weight, increased control of light spectrum, and greater chemical reactivity than their larger-scale counterparts.
Genesis Nanotechnology, Inc. ~ “Great Things from Small Things”
In the latest edition of their annual letter published today, Bill and Melinda Gates argue that the world needs “an energy miracle,” and are willing to bet that such a breakthrough will arrive within 15 years.
Bill Gates cites scientists’ estimates that to avoid the worst effects of climate change the biggest carbon-emitting countries must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, and the world must more or less stop such emissions entirely by 2100. And that’s not going to happen if we continue on our current trajectory.
You can see Gates explain the equation in the Quartz video above.
Gates says he was stunned to discover how little research and development money is going toward breakthroughs in cheaper, scaleable clean-energy sources.Gates announced last year that he was committing $1 billion of his own money over five years to invest in clean-energy technology, and has been pushing governments to increase their funding.
To explain the need for a breakthrough in energy technology, he uses an equation (similar to the Kaya identity equation) that represents the factors determining how much carbon dioxide the world emits every year.
“Within the next 15 years, I expect the world will discover a clean-energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power our world.” Gates believes that cleaner options such as electric cars and LED lighting won’t bring down energy consumption enough to hit those climate-change goals. In fact, he doesn’t see any current clean-energy technology that will enable the world to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions by 2100, partly because it’s not consistent or inexpensive enough.
Gates has personally invested in next-generation nuclear power technology, which he describes as “a very promising path.” He is also backing efforts to improve battery technology, so that energy from intermittent clean sources such as solar and wind can be stored affordably at large scale for use over time. “I think we need to pursue many different paths,” says Gates in an interview with Quartz.
And he’s betting on relatively fast progress. “Within the next 15 years,” Gates predicts in his letter, “I expect the world will discover a clean-energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power our world.”
** Re-Posted from the World Economic Forum
Genesis Nanotechnology, Inc. ~ “Great Things from Small Things”
Readers’ Note: Dr. Alivisatos (Berkeley) has been a pioneer of ‘nano-cystals’ and their potential applications. Most recently these ‘crystals’ or Quantum Dots have found their way into commercial application for Display Screens. However the much larger vision for QD’s has significant (“game changing”) implications for: Solar Energy, Bio-Medicine, Drug Theranostics & Delivery, Lighting and Hybrid-Materials (Coatings, Paints, Security Inks as examples). Enjoy the Video ~ Team GNT
SNOW: When quantum dots of different sizes are grouped together by the billions, they produce vivid colors that have changed the way we look at display screens. The initial research, funded by the NSF, has found its way into many applications, including a nanotechnology company called Nanosys, which produces 25 tons of quantum dot materials every year, enough for approximately 6 million 60 inch TVs.
ALIVISATOS: What we have here is a plastic film that contains inside of it quantum dots, very tiny, tiny crystals made out of semiconductors. It actually contains two sizes of nanoparticle – a very small size that emits a green color and a slightly larger size that emits a red color of light.
SNOW: This film is embedded into tablets, televisions, and laptops to enhance their displays with brilliant color.
ALIVISATOS: One of the things that we’ve learned about vision is that we have receptors in our eyes for green, red and blue colors. And if we want a really high quality display, we need to match the light emission from our display to the receptors in our eyes.
Rice University scientists embedded graphene nanoribbon-infused epoxy in a section of helicopter blade to test its ability to remove ice through Joule heating. Credit: Tour Group/Rice University
A thin coating of graphene nanoribbons in epoxy developed at Rice University has proven effective at melting ice on a helicopter blade.
The coating by the Rice lab of chemist James Tour may be an effective real-time de-icer for aircraft, wind turbines, transmission lines and other surfaces exposed to winter weather, according to a new paper in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.
In tests, the lab melted centimeter-thick ice from a static helicopter rotor blade in a minus-4-degree Fahrenheit environment. When a small voltage was applied, the coating delivered electrothermal heat – called Joule heating – to the surface, which melted the ice.
The nanoribbons produced commercially by unzipping nanotubes, a process also invented at Rice, are highly conductive. Rather than trying to produce large sheets of expensive graphene, the lab determined years ago that nanoribbons in composites would interconnect and conduct electricity across the material with much lower loadings than traditionally needed.
Previous experiments showed how the nanoribbons in films could be used to de-ice radar domes and even glass, since the films can be transparent to the eye.
“Applying this composite to wings could save time and money at airports where the glycol-based chemicals now used to de-ice aircraft are also an environmental concern,” Tour said.
In Rice’s lab tests, nanoribbons were no more than 5 percent of the composite. The researchers led by Rice graduate student Abdul-Rahman Raji spread a thin coat of the composite on a segment of rotor blade supplied by a helicopter manufacturer; they then replaced the thermally conductive nickel abrasion sleeve used as a leading edge on rotor blades. They were able to heat the composite to more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
For wings or blades in motion, the thin layer of water that forms first between the heated composite and the surface should be enough to loosen ice and allow it to fall off without having to melt completely, Tour said.
The lab reported that the composite remained robust in temperatures up to nearly 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
As a bonus, Tour said, the coating may also help protect aircraft from lightning strikes and provide an extra layer of electromagnetic shielding.
More information: Abdul-Rahman O. Raji et al. Composites of Graphene Nanoribbon Stacks and Epoxy for Joule Heating and Deicing of Surfaces, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces (2016). DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b11131
EPFL scientists have developed a solar-panel material that can cut down on photovoltaic costs while achieving competitive power-conversion efficiency of 20.2%.
Some of the most promising solar cells today use light-harvesting films made from perovskites – a group of materials that share a characteristic molecular structure. However, perovskite-based solar cells use expensive “hole-transporting” materials, whose function is to move the positive charges that are generated when light hits the perovskite film. Publishing in Nature Energy (“A molecularly engineered hole-transporting material for e cient perovskite solar cells”), EPFL scientists have now engineered a considerably cheaper hole-transporting material that costs only a fifth of existing ones while keeping the efficiency of the solar cell above 20%.
This is a 3-D illustration of FDT molecules on a surface of perovskite crystals. (Image: Sven M. Hein / EPFL)
As the quality of perovskite films increases, researchers are seeking other ways of improving the overall performance of solar cells. Inadvertently, this search targets the other key element of a solar panel, the hole-transporting layer, and specifically, the materials that make them up. There are currently only two hole-transporting materials available for perovskite-based solar cells. Both types are quite costly to synthesize, adding to the overall expense of the solar cell.
To address this problem, a team of researchers led by Mohammad Nazeeruddin at EPFL developed a molecularly engineered hole-transporting material, called FDT, that can bring costs down while keeping efficiency up to competitive levels. Tests showed that the efficiency of FDT rose to 20.2% – higher than the other two, more expensive alternatives. And because FDT can be easily modified, it acts as a blueprint for an entire generation of new low-cost hole-transporting materials.
“The best performing perovskite solar cells use hole transporting materials, which are difficult to make and purify, and are prohibitively expensive, costing over €300 per gram preventing market penetration,” says Nazeeruddin. “By comparison, FDT is easy to synthesize and purify, and its cost is estimated to be a fifth of that for existing materials – while matching, and even surpassing their performance.”
Gold nanoparticles have unusual optical, electronic and chemical properties, which scientists are seeking to put to use in a range of new technologies, from nanoelectronics to cancer treatments.
Some of the most interesting properties of nanoparticles emerge when they are brought close together — either in clusters of just a few particles or in crystals made up of millions of them. Yet particles that are just millionths of an inch in size are too small to be manipulated by conventional lab tools, so a major challenge has been finding ways to assemble these bits of gold while controlling the three-dimensional shape of their arrangement.
One approach that researchers have developed has been to use tiny structures made from synthetic strands of DNA to help organize nanoparticles. Since DNA strands are programmed to pair with other strands in certain patterns, scientists have attached individual strands of DNA to gold particle surfaces to create a variety of assemblies. But these hybrid gold-DNA nanostructures are intricate and expensive to generate, limiting their potential for use in practical materials. The process is similar, in a sense, to producing books by hand.
Enter the nanoparticle equivalent of the printing press. It’s efficient, re-usable and carries more information than previously possible. In results reported online in Nature Chemistry, researchers from McGill’s Department of Chemistry outline a procedure for making a DNA structure with a specific pattern of strands coming out of it; at the end of each strand is a chemical “sticky patch.” When a gold nanoparticle is brought into contact to the DNA nanostructure, it sticks to the patches. The scientists then dissolve the assembly in distilled water, separating the DNA nanostructure into its component strands and leaving behind the DNA imprint on the gold nanoparticle.
This is a gold nanoparticle, brought into contact to a DNA nanostructure, sticks to chemical patches. Scientists then dissolve the assembly, separating the DNA nanostructure into its component strands and leaving behind the DNA imprint on the gold nanoparticle.
Credit: Thomas Edwardson
“These encoded gold nanoparticles are unprecedented in their information content,” says senior author Hanadi Sleiman, who holds the Canada Research Chair in DNA Nanoscience. “The DNA nanostructures, for their part, can be re-used, much like stamps in an old printing press.”
From stained glass to optoelectronics
Some of the properties of gold nanoparticles have been recognized for centuries. Medieval artisans added gold chloride to molten glass to create the ruby-red colour in stained-glass windows — the result, as chemists figured out much later, of the light-scattering properties of tiny gold particles.
Now, the McGill researchers hope their new production technique will help pave the way for use of DNA-encoded nanoparticles in a range of cutting-edge technologies. First author Thomas Edwardson says the next step for the lab will be to investigate the properties of structures made from these new building blocks. “In much the same way that atoms combine to form complex molecules, patterned DNA gold particles can connect to neighbouring particles to form well-defined nanoparticle assemblies.”
These could be put to use in areas including optoelectronic nanodevices and biomedical sciences, the researchers say. The patterns of DNA strands could, for example, be engineered to target specific proteins on cancer cells, and thus serve to detect cancer or to selectively destroy cancer cells.
Financial support for the research was provided by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Centre for Self-Assembled Chemical Structures, the Canada Research Chairs Program and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
Thomas G. W. Edwardson, Kai Lin Lau, Danny Bousmail, Christopher J. Serpell, Hanadi F. Sleiman. Transfer of molecular recognition information from DNA nanostructures to gold nanoparticles. Nature Chemistry, 2016; DOI: 10.1038/nchem.2420