Microscopic Algae Help Scientists Improve Solar Cell Efficiency

It is far from uncommon when outstanding inventions turn out to be just a simplified repetition of what nature has already created millions of years ago. Common algae have become favorites of a recent discovery by scientists at Yale University.

Yale's team became interested in tiny fossilized creatures - diatoms, which are a group of phytoplankton. They are sometimes called “gemstones of the sea” because of the ability of their silica vitreous shells to scatter light. Diatoms can be found in large quantities in oceans and freshwaters, making them ideal for solar cell enhancement.

Organic photovoltaic solar cells are covered with an active layer of organic polymers, due to which they are much cheaper than artificial solar cells, although they are inferior to them in efficiency. Their main disadvantage is that the active layer is extremely thin - only 300 nm. Increasing its thickness will lead to a decrease in the conversion rate of sunlight, and the use of more efficient materials will dramatically increase the cost of the element.

However, here nature itself came to the rescue. Diatoms scatter light efficiently, so scientists decided to use them as a cheaper and more readily available coating material for solar panels. By incorporating algae into the active layer, the Yale team was able to reduce the amount of other required materials without compromising the effectiveness of the element itself.