We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Pursuing Plant Power

Chemical engineers are looking to leaves as they try to make better, more efficient solar cells.

By Victoria Tang
May 9, 2011 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:29 AM
A new flexible solar cell uses plant-based ingredients to gather energy. | Image Courtesy: Orlin Velev


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

In a quest to build a better solar cell, North Carolina State University chemical engineer Orlin Velev is borrowing from nature’s experts in collecting the sun’s energy: leaves. Starting with the natural pigments that help plants harvest solar rays, Velev and his team have crafted a flexible, nontoxic photovoltaic device that he hopes could eventually generate clean electricity far more cheaply than today’s silicon-based solar panels.

Velev’s one-square-inch proto­types consist of light-sensitive molecules—including the photosynthesis powerhouse chlorophyll—embedded in a water-based gel sandwiched between copper and plastic electrodes. Unlike traditional solar cells, many of which contain toxic elements such as cadmium, the biologically derived materials in Velev’s device can be safely released into the environment after use. The cell’s flexibility could make it an ideal choice for covering irregular surfaces; large pieces could even be rolled up or folded for easy transportation.

“This is a totally different way of thinking compared to a semiconductor cell, which is solid and expensive,” Velev says. In the next stage of development, he aims to boost the efficiency of the design, which is currently less than one percent of that achieved by top-performing silicon solar cells.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.