While the U.S. continues to increase its use of large-scale solar thermal collectors, or solar panels, solar-cell technology developed by New Zealand-based Massey University's Nanomaterials Research Center will generate the country's electricity from sunlight at one-tenth the cost of current silicon-based, photoelectric solar cells, said Professor Wayne Campbell. In time, the technology could be applied to a wide variety of mobile devices, including handsets, and fixed wireless structure, such as solar-powered access points, he said.

Researchers at the center used nanotechnology to develop a range of colored dyes for use in dye-sensitized solar cells. The synthetic dyes are made from organic compounds closely related to those found in nature. A green dye is actually synthetic chlorophyll derived from the light-harvesting pigment plants use for photosynthesis. Hemoglobin, the compound that gives blood its color, is another dye being tested in the cells.

Campbell said that unlike the silicon-based solar cells currently on the market, the 10×10 centimeter, green demonstration cells generate enough electricity in low-light conditions to run a small fan. Energy generated by the cells also can be stored in lithium-ion batteries, he said.

The nature-based solar cells also are more environmentally friendly than silicon-based cells because they are made from titanium dioxide — a plentiful, renewable and non-toxic white mineral obtained from New Zealand's black sand, Campbell said.

“The refining of pure silicon, although a very abundant mineral, is energy-hungry and very expensive,” Campbell said. “And whereas silicon cells need direct sunlight to operate efficiently, these cells will work efficiently in low-diffuse light conditions.”

Using nanotechnology to develop a better solar cell will convert as much sunlight to electricity as possible, Campbell said. “The energy that reaches earth from sunlight in one hour is more than that used by all human activities in one year,” he said.

However, there are still some obstacles to overcome in cell construction. The technology may need another two years to develop the design and synthesis of the dyes before it becomes commercially available. For instance, researchers must figure out how to seal corrosive and volatile electrolytes within the cell between two sheets of glass for use over extended periods in harsh environments. In addition, Campbell said the cells are heavy and fragile.

The solar cells are the product of more than 10 years of research funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, which invests in research, science and technology initiatives on behalf of the New Zealand government.

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