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Genetically Engineered Virus Could Boost Solar Cell Efficiency, New Study Shows [VIDEO]

Oct 16, 2015 02:15 PM EDT

Plants harness energy through absorption of light or photosynthesis, a process that scientists based the development of solar panels on several decades ago. Now researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are combining quantum mechanics with genetic engineering to develop an enhanced version of that process, using a virus to boost the light-harvesting capabilities of solar cells, a new study revealed.

So how is photosynthesis related to quantum mechanics? Researchers explained that during photosynthesis, a photon hits a receptor called a chromophore. This produces an exciton, a quantum particle of energy that jumps from one chromophore to another until it reaches a reaction center, which is harnessed and stored for later use. But the path that excitons take in their trip from chromophore to chromophore is random and inefficient. The key to more efficient power is having the most efficient exciton movement which means arraning the chromophores correctly. Scientists often refer to this as "Quantum Goldilocks Effect," according to a news release.

Essentially, the genetically engineered virus ensures that chromophores are arranged just right, and they do so by bonding with them. Researchers developed multiple varieties of a virus to test which provided the optimal spacing between synthetic chromophores. In doing so, they were able to more than double the excitons' speed, which increased the distance they traveled before dissipating, or more simply, increased the amount of energy harnessed.

MIT's findings could lead to the production of inexpensive and more efficient solar cells in the future. Their study was recently published in the journal Nature Materials

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