I’m going to get through this without saying ‘flower power;’ it may be catchy, it may be in the title of the featured article, it’s probably in quite a few science articles and blogs already, but I’ll get through this without saying ‘flower power.’ *breathe*
Anyway, some new research in Advanced Optical Materials demonstrated that you can make solar cells more efficient by changing their surface. Considering that solar cells have been dogged with efficiency problems, anything that could make them better is welcome, I’m sure. So how would the authors do this? Here’s where the title and Mother Nature comes in: they would make the glass surface bumpy, like rose petals, rather than smooth. Rose petals may feel smooth, but take a scanning electron microscope to a rose petal and you’ll find that it’s actually bumpy like the surface of your tongue (you are now aware of your own tongue – my bad). Apart from attracting pollinators and romantics, these bumps can redirect and focus incoming light into where it’s needed – other plant cells – instead of back into space. This is why even flowers on the forest floor can thrive, even with little sunlight to work with.
If you think about it, flower petals are really just solar cells anyway, so why not improve our tech with ‘micro-bumps’? The authors did just that; they made a mold from the surface of a rose petal and made some bumpy glass from it. They placed it on top of some light-absorbing material that converts solar energy into electricity. Typical of a lot of materials research, it was done in small scale. Got to have a proof of concept first. To make sure it wasn’t a fluke, they tested it against smooth glass, then tried to see what would happen if you used the bumpy glass on different light-absorbing materials.
So what happened? Turns out the bumpy glass was indeed more efficient at converting light into electricity than smooth glass. They got the same results using different kinds of light-absorbing material, even thinner kinds. That’s good: this means that solar cell makers can use less material, which could drive down prices for solar cells if they find a way to scale this up for industry. Also, if it’s more efficient, you won’t need to have as large of a solar panel arrangement, and large solar farms like Gemasolar can produce even more electricity.
A simple walk in nature can inspire people to do some really creative things. Scientists can be some really creative people too, and they’re going to have to be if they want to stay in the game. Seriously – flowers and energy research? This just gives a whole new meaning to ‘flower power’.
Featured article: Hünig R, Mertens A, Stephan M, Schulz A, Richter B, Hetterich M, Powalla M, Lemmer U, Colsmann A, Gomard G. (2016) Flower Power: Exploiting Plants’ Epidermal Structures for Enhanced Light Harvesting in Thin-Film Solar Cells. Adv. Opt. Mater. (Early View) 10.1002/adom.201600046
Image credit: “Rosa ‘Red Chateau'” Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0, user: Hamachidori)