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BYU students’ research into nanocrystals could lead to better solar panels

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Posted at 10:05 PM, Mar 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-29 00:05:03-04

PROVO, Utah -- Chemistry and physics students at Brigham Young University have discovered a way to harvest more energy from sunlight, and the method employs tiny items called nanocrystals.

Trevor Smith is a graduate student at BYU, and he said their work could mean better solar panel efficiency in the future through the use of a unique tool.

“The basis of my project is we take proteins, which are not normally considered as a material, and use them to create solar panels, or modify existing solar panel technologies,” he said.

Tiny crystals called nanocrystals could be the key to making solar panels more cost and energy-efficient.

Smith and undergraduate physics student Stephen Erickson have been working together on the project.

“Together we’ve been designing and creating this protein material for solar panel technologies,” Smith said.

The chemistry part of the project includes creating the nanocrystals using a protein called ferratin. Ferratin normally stores iron molecules and is also hollow.

“And we’re able to extract the iron out and then place whatever other material, or metal, that we want into the interior of this protein,” Smith said.

Inside the ferratin, the researchers grow tiny crystals. The idea is to grow crystals that capture light that commercially available solar panels aren’t able to.

“So what we’re trying to do is demonstrate that we can use this protein material, in conjunction with various metals, to demonstrate practically that we can create a solar panel and have it generate electricity for us,” Smith said.

Once the nanocrystals are formed, they are sent to the physics department. There, the crystals will be finely tuned to capture very specific wavelengths of light.

“I look at how they absorb light, because different materials will absorb light differently,” Erickson said. “Some will start absorbing at lower energies... Essentially the bluer the light, the more energetic the light, so some will absorb more into the red, some don’t start absorbing more into the green.”

Right now, the students are just working on the material that will be part of a solar panel--not the actual solar panel itself. But they said they hope this research will eventually lead to more reliable and efficient solar energy.

“I think we’re just at the very beginning,” Erickson said. “I think there’s a lot more interesting things to come that our lab mates will be following up with.”