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Altered Organism Triples Solar Cell Efficiency 158

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the shiny-happy-algae dept.
An anonymous reader writes "By harnessing the shells of living organisms in the sea, microscopic algae called diatoms, engineers have tripled the efficiency of experimental dye-sensitized solar cells. The diatoms were fed a diet of titanium dioxide, the main ingredient for thin film solar cells, instead of their usual meal which is silica (silicon dioxide). As a result, their shells became photovoltaic when coated with dyes. The result is a thin-film dye-sensitized solar cell that is three times more efficient than those without the diatoms."
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Altered Organism Triples Solar Cell Efficiency

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  • by wheeda (520016)
    Neat. When can I buy them for my house?
  • by hyades1 (1149581) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:15PM (#27535843)

    So does this mean we now have to call them dye-atoms?

    Don't bother throwing things...I've already taken cover.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by poetmatt (793785)

      This sounds like a good passover joke. If they had dyed the atoms, it would have been good enough for us.
      dye-atom!

    • by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Friday April 10, 2009 @05:28PM (#27536609)

      It's too bad they used Titanium instead of Lithium. We could have had DyeLithium Crystal solar power

      • by SEAL (88488)

        Yeah but since it's triple the output, you could call it Tritanium.

    • by hawk (1151)

      >So does this mean we now have to call them dye-atoms?

      No, but PETA is already preparing to complain about people who string too many together, cooking them with their own over-voltage condition, while screaming, "Die, atom!" :)

      hawk

  • 120% efficiency! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Two9A (866100)

    So, with the "breakthrough" a few months ago that three different dyes in a cell could capture 40% of light from the sun, does that make this more efficient than coal?

    Could the ecomentalists finally have something to cheer about?!

    • by Jurily (900488) <jurily@NETBSDgmail.com minus bsd> on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:17PM (#27535861)

      So, with the "breakthrough" a few months ago that three different dyes in a cell could capture 40% of light from the sun, does that make this more efficient than coal?

      Well, it doesn't take millions of years to make more when we run out.

      • by MaxwellEdison (1368785) on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:20PM (#27535891)
        How long does it take to make a new sun? I mean...it will run out eventually...
        • by linzeal (197905)
          You gather the requisite ~290k Earth's mass of Hydrogen [google.com] and than we will talk.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by WCguru42 (1268530)

          How long does it take to make a new sun? I mean...it will run out eventually...

          When the Sun runs out it won't matter how much coal we have, (or any other energy source) unless we've used it to ship out far, far away from this solar system. Nothing is truly indefinite so your argument is mostly pointless.

          • by MaxwellEdison (1368785) on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:47PM (#27536187)
            It wasn't even an argument...I was being wholly pointless. Jeez, a new "super efficient solar cell of the month" story comes around and everyone puckers their sphincters like they're about to be exposed to the vacuum of space...
          • by entgod (998805)
            Wait, it wasn't a joke?
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Jurily (900488)

            Nothing is truly indefinite

            Heisenberg begs to differ.

          • by HiThere (15173)

            It's not pointless. It's a genuine problem. It's just one that won't get here for a very long time. So other, more immediate, things are more significant...in the short term.

            It's probably really too early to give it much attention, or to try to solve it...but it is a genuine problem.

        • by Kreigaffe (765218)

          I'd frankly be shocked if we were still around as a species at that point. At least, if we were, I sort of doubt we'd really look like we do now. Probably not even think. That's so very, very far off. That's further off than the origin of life on earth. That's frankly an incomprehensible amount of change to life on earth that may occur between now and then, to the point where any speculation isn't worth the oxygen used to imagine it. Nothing we can possibly think will come close to the realities of th

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Jurily (900488)

          How long does it take to make a new sun? I mean...it will run out eventually...

          Let there be light. [multivax.com]

        • by tmosley (996283)
          Simple, we mine the sun for coal once it cools off. We then use the hydrogen we get from burning that coal in the little widget I bought on the internet for my car, and turn it all into hydrogen, then BAM! Problem solved.
    • by Red Flayer (890720) on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:23PM (#27535919) Journal

      So, with the "breakthrough" a few months ago that three different dyes in a cell could capture 40% of light from the sun, does that make this more efficient than coal?

      From an energy standpoint, direct solar has ALWAYS been more efficient than coal. How much sunlight do you think was needed to create the coal we burn? How much energy do we use to extract and refine it (when necessary)?

      More cost-effective? That's a different matter, and impossible to calculate since we can't even properly measure the true costs of burning coal for electricity.

      • by Nutria (679911)

        More cost-effective?

        Tied to that is practicality: you don't get much solar energy at night or during snow or dust storms.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward

          ..you don't get much solar energy at night...

          Solution: Flip the panels over and dig a deep, deep hole..

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Red Flayer (890720)
          Yes, we need to build an energy storage infrastructure... and factor the cost in.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by epine (68316)

        How much sunlight do you think was needed to create the coal we burn?

        The accrued savings from a raging fusion inferno a million times the mass of the earth whose wispy out layer glowed incandescent for four billion years will be pretty much wiped out by about 200 years of human activity.

        More cost-effective? That's a different matter, and impossible to calculate since we can't even properly measure the true costs of burning coal for electricity.

        Is there where the multi-tasking generation leads us? This has

    • FTFA: However, silicon cells have more than twice the efficiency, as much as 20 percent compared to less than 10 percent for dye-sensitized solar cells.

      Looks more like 30% efficiency to me.

      I don't know why they can't just tell you the percentage up front!
  • by Khyber (864651) <techkitsune@gmail.com> on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:17PM (#27535867) Homepage Journal

    From toothpaste to DE Filters to solar cells.

    I love nature - if mankind paid more attention to it we'd be so much more advanced than we are currently.

    • by esocid (946821)
      they're also that shiny reflective stuff on road signs
      • Mankind is the reflective stuff on road signs? Is that why they are red, or what they mean by sacrificing one, to save a thousand?

        • by idontgno (624372)

          Mankind is the reflective stuff on road signs?

          Yes. Soylent Red steet signs are PEOPLE!

          So are Soylent Yellow lane dividing stripes.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Nutria (679911)

      I love nature - if mankind paid more attention to it

      Mankind is of and surrounded by "nature". We can't we can't do anything *but* pay attention to nature.

    • Indeed. So many of the useful things we now enjoy were based on either observing the natural world, or using things from pretty much directly (many medecines). It's distressing that we are destroying so many natural habitats, and associated species, that could some day be really helpful.

      As yeah, they're often interesting and pretty, too...

    • by x2A (858210)

      Pay more attention to nature?! You should try google fighting [googlefight.com] it before making those kinds of statements.

    • Apparently we once were... ever heard of Atlantis?

    • by corbettw (214229)

      if mankind paid more attention to it we'd be so much more advanced than we are currently.

      citation needed [wikipedia.org]

    • From toothpaste to DE Filters to solar cells.

      They can also apperantly clean up red tides

      http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/118946.php [medicalnewstoday.com]

    • by b4upoo (166390)

      Only if it produces lobster or King crabs.

    • They also produce around 1/3 of the world's oxygen supply. That doesn't make your list? sheesh.
  • by Tsu Dho Nimh (663417) <abacaxi@NosPAM.hotmail.com> on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:25PM (#27535955)

    Nasty humans exploiting those defenseless unicellular creatures!

    • by TubeSteak (669689) on Friday April 10, 2009 @05:51PM (#27536801) Journal

      Nasty humans exploiting those defenseless unicellular creatures!

      We'll call them Sea Puppies! Because who would want to hurt a sea puppy?!
       
      /In case you don't get the joke [peta.org]

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Vegeta99 (219501)

        Oh dear lord. I don't call that a joke, I call that horrendous. The fact that the website seems to be targeting children gives me chills. If my son or daughter was suddenly upset with my fishing and hunting habit because PETA told her its mean to kill "sea kittens", I'm gonna be marching down to headquarters in my camouflage to take care of the problem MY way.

        Fucking PETA. I'm going to eat a creek kitten right now. A trout. And, by the way, PETA, I paid $30 to be licensed to actually catch that trout, and I

        • by BlueStrat (756137)

          Oh dear lord. I don't call that a joke, I call that horrendous. The fact that the website seems to be targeting children gives me chills. If my son or daughter was suddenly upset with my fishing and hunting habit because PETA told her its mean to kill "sea kittens", I'm gonna be marching down to headquarters in my camouflage to take care of the problem MY way.

          Fucking PETA. I'm going to eat a creek kitten right now. A trout. And, by the way, PETA, I paid $30 to be licensed to actually catch that trout, and I

    • Worse. They're making them eat titanium.

      If that's not torture, I don't know what is. :D

  • OK... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Rollgunner (630808) on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:30PM (#27535999)
    Diatoms that generate electricity... great! Who's in charge of soldering the leads to them so we can harness it ?
  • by bombastinator (812664) on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:30PM (#27536001)
    titanium dioxide is the main pigment base in modern (but not pre-70's) white paint. While titanium is not a particularly cheap metal, paint chips are something that is actually hard to get rid of. I wonder if they could be fed on waste drywall stripped from homes. that's basically paint, paper, and gypsum.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by NeoSkandranon (515696)

      What gets done with that sort of thing currently?

      • Waste sheetrock ('rock' as the home builders call it) goes to landfills currently. At least on the east coast of the US.....

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by maxume (22995)

      Titanium is expensive because the oxygen needs to be stripped off of the ore; titanium dioxide is far cheaper.

      That doesn't mean that recycling paint is a bad idea, but the cost of titanium isn't going to drive it.

    • by b4upoo (166390)

      Florida has a pot load of homes with Chinese drywall that is a curse from hell. Getting rid of this stuff involves a rework of the entire mansion.

  • Well Duh (Score:3, Funny)

    by sokoban (142301) on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:37PM (#27536077) Homepage

    Of course diatoms are going to make better solar cells. I mean just look at the name, diatom is greek for two atoms. There's twice as many atoms there, so you'd guess they would make at least twice as good solar cells.

  • 3 times what? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by SupremoMan (912191)

    Triple efficiency of what? I was only able to find this paragraph that put some numbers.

    Dye-sensitized solar cells are favored as a thin-film material because they work in low-light conditions and are fabricated with environmentally benign materials compared to silicon solar cells. However, silicon cells have more than twice the efficiency, as much as 20 percent compared to less than 10 percent for dye-sensitized solar cells.

    So Are we talking about 3x 20%? One could only wish. I think they mean 3x 10%, so 30% efficency, which is only 50% better than silicon solar cell. I guess that's still a big improvement.

    • by Ragzouken (943900)
      Solar cells are -20% efficient now?
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by hort_wort (1401963)
      Another thing I've run into in the past that was a problem: sometimes when people are talking about solar cell efficiency, they switch sensitive wavelengths on you.

      There was a young boy who received high praise for making a solar cell that was "20 times as efficient as comparative cells"... Well, since the other cells were already getting 10% of the output from the sun, and since there was no way the boy could be getting 200% from the sun, it means he just expanded the wavelengths of light the cell was
  • by bugi (8479) on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:53PM (#27536259)

    Do the diatoms die from shock?

  • someone cooked up while being stoned

    "so we feed the bugs the solar cell stuff man, and they just like use it make better solar cells. whoa"

    and yet it works. amazing

    all hail marijuana science

    next up from stoned science: "dude, did you ever look at your hand, no, i mean really look at it?: curing phantom limb symptoms by really looking at your hand"

    • next up from stoned science: "dude, did you ever look at your hand, no, i mean really look at it?: curing phantom limb symptoms by really looking at your hand"

      Y'must be high. If your hand is completely there, you'd not have a problem with it being nonexistent and itchy, would ya?

  • Lousy Headline (Score:4, Informative)

    by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Friday April 10, 2009 @04:57PM (#27536323)
    Lousy headline here. They haven't tripled the efficiency of the already best solar cells out there, but just some over variant that wasn't so very efficient to start with.
    • Re:Lousy Headline (Score:5, Insightful)

      by corbettw (214229) <corbettw@y a h o o . c om> on Friday April 10, 2009 @05:52PM (#27536803) Journal
      In tripling the efficiency of the not-so-good ones, did they bring them within cost parity of the better ones? If the better ones were four times as good and cost four times as much, and now these are three times as good at double the cost, then that's a significant breakthrough.
  • I wonder.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anachragnome (1008495) on Friday April 10, 2009 @05:14PM (#27536483)

    I wonder what effect this will have on evolutionary processes in the diatoms.

    How will they respond to the titanium dioxide in an evolutionary context?

    • by bar-agent (698856)

      How will they respond to the titanium dioxide in an evolutionary context?

      Article says they only take up titanium dioxide if no silicon dioxide is available. But if they maintain a strain of diatoms perpetually deprived of titanium dioxide, we might see some natural selection in action. I guess diatoms don't currently make used of silicon dioxide in any capacity aside from shell production, though, since the diatoms fed only titanium dioxide seem to be able to live, so I doubt anything much would happen.

  • Maybe they can do the same with humans, and we no longer need to eat: just hang out in the sun. My wife keeps telling me that I'm as lazy as a plant anyhow. Might as well go all the way.

  • by javelinco (652113) on Friday April 10, 2009 @05:28PM (#27536611) Journal
    Did anyone else notice that the article didn't bother to compare the solar cells with, I don't know, other solar cells? They didn't talk about efficiency compared to any other existing method of making solar cells, except for the exact same methodology minus the diatoms.

    Sounds like they are "fishing" for some more funding. Oh yes I can.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 10, 2009 @06:16PM (#27537003)

      FTFA:

      Dye-sensitized solar cells are favored as a thin-film material because they work in low-light conditions and are fabricated with environmentally benign materials compared to silicon solar cells. However, silicon cells have more than twice the efficiency, as much as 20 percent compared to less than 10 percent for dye-sensitized solar cells.

      In the low-light environmentally safe field, these are the "normal" solar cells.

      If you are looking for the replacement power plant cells (toxic, always aligned with the sun, typically out in the middle of a desert to avoid clouds) these aren't the cells you want.

      But if these are intended to be mass marketed and put all over the place, this is the type you want.

    • by vadim_t (324782) on Friday April 10, 2009 @06:46PM (#27537249) Homepage

      There's nothing wrong with fishing for more funding.

      The important thing isn't the efficiency, but the price/performance ratio.

      1% efficient cells that are dirt cheap still aren't worth installing on your roof.
      95% efficient cells at $50K per square meter are only of interest for satellite applications.

      But, a 30% efficient cell that's reasonably cheap is a whole lot more interesting than a 40% one that costs 5 times as much. Taking a cheap 10% efficient tech and making it 3 times better without making it 3 times more expensive is a very useful thing.

  • by WGFCrafty (1062506) on Friday April 10, 2009 @06:50PM (#27537277)
    A lot of animals will alter chemicals in the same way regardless of whether it is natural to the organism.
    Dr. Alexander Shulgin [wikipedia.org] talks about something similar [cognitiveliberty.org], making a mushroom take care of his work.

    However there is a very interesting study that took place in Leipzig about 15 years ago. Jochen Gartz, a mushroom explorer whom I know quite well, has done some fascinating studies with Psilocybe species by raising them on solid media containing strange tryptamines that are alien to the mushroom. Apparently the enzymes that are responsible for the 4-hydroxy group of psilocin are indifferent to what it is they choose to 4-hydroxylate. He has taken things like DPT or DIPT and put them in the growth media and the fruiting bodies that came out contain 4-hydroxy-DPT or 4-hydroxy-DIPT instead of psilocin.

  • Between this, that kid who had some amazing breakthrough with no help from his parents and others, honest, and all the other breakthroughs we've had, solar efficiency has been boosted over 100 fold in the past decade.

    Why has none of it come to fruition?

    Could it be that bullshit headlines and shoddy research yields more research funds?

    • by tsotha (720379)

      The bullshit headlines probably come mostly from j-school grads reading actual science papers.

      As to why we haven't seen it in the real world? I'm not surprised. There's already an existing method to create solar cells, so for a new scheme to actually hit the market you have to solve problems with manufacturing and lifespan. If your vastly more efficient solar cell requires plutonium to function it probably won't amount to more than a lab curiosity.

  • 6-10% (Score:5, Interesting)

    by DanielRavenNest (107550) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @07:33AM (#27541051)

    30 seconds of googling reports that dye cells currently produce around 6-10%. If you can triple that, it makes a really good solar cell. If you can do that and keep costs low, it makes a great solar cell.

  • by joocemann (1273720) on Saturday April 11, 2009 @10:47AM (#27541971)

    ... but diatoms are *Not* animals.

    They are eukaryote, but not animals. Plus, PETA doesn't really care about microscopic animals --- they care about the animals you would learn about in a book for children.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromalveolata [wikipedia.org]

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