Courtesy jellywatsonI guess that the guy who invented the Super Soaker squirt gun is also kind of an all-around engineering genius. His company is currently developing a new kind of solar panel that converts heat (instead of light) into electricity. It could be a really big deal, or it could be slightly misplaced enthusiasm (see the "Bloom Box".)
In any case, read about it here. It's sort of exciting technology, and the inventor, Lonnie Johnson, has an interesting story.
Materials scientists figure out ways to make things stronger, cheaper, or better. A favorite technique is nano-self-assembly. Just mix together the right ingredients and "presto", you get a wonder material. Another great development would be for the material to be self-repairing.
MIT scientist, Michael Strano, and his team have created a material made up of seven different compounds including carbon nanotubes, phospholipids, and proteins. Under the right conditions they spontaneously assemble themselves into a light-harvesting structure that produces an electric current. The assembly breaks apart when a surfactant (think soapy solution) is added but reassemble when it is removed. These new self-healing solar cells are already about double the efficiency of today’s best solar cells but could potentially be many times more efficient.
Courtesy Lauras512Yeah, I’ll tell you what it can’t do: it can’t get that stink out of my freakin’ mittens.
But, besides that, tobacco is an interesting plant, and useful for a lot more than giving us cancer and temporary good feelings. Currently, some scientists are thinking that tobacco might be able to give us electricity-producing solar panels too.
It all started one sunny afternoon, when two scientists were lying in an open patch in a tobacco field, holding hands and watching the occasional cloud drift by.
“Isn’t tobacco great?” asked the first scientist.
“Yes,” sighed the second. She had just woven a bracelet from tobacco leaves, and was feeling like there couldn’t be a better plant in the world.
“But, really,” the first continued. “It’s really great.”
“Yes…” said the second, wondering where her colleague was going with the thought.
“Like, it sits here all day, just being tobacco…” started the first scientist.
“Which is great,” interrupted the second scientist.
“Which is great,” agreed the first scientist. Then she went on. “And it’s so good at sitting here, absorbing the sun… I wonder… I wonder…”
“Wonder what?” asked the second scientist, propping herself up on one elbow to look at the other scientist.
“Well, I wonder if we couldn’t use tobacco’s sunlight-gathering abilities to make, you know, solar cells. For electricity.”
The first scientist let herself sink back on to the ground, brushing dirt from the arm of her white lab coat. “You’re drunk,” she said.
“No! Well… maybe a little,” admitted the first scientist. “But I think it could work. Tobacco has evolved to have its chromophores—its sunlight-gathering molecules…”
“I know what a chromophore is,” said the second scientist.
“To have its chromophores very efficiently spaced out in its cells,” the first scientist went on. “If we could just figure out a way to make tobacco produce more chromophores, we could extract them from the plant, and coat solar cells with them. It could be a cheap, environmentally friendly way to make solar panels!”
“But how are we going to entice tobacco to produce more chromophores? By asking politely?” pointed out the second scientist.
“Yeah…” The first scientist frowned. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Never mind.”
In the warm air of the sunny tobacco patch, the suggestion was soon forgotten, and the first scientist drifted off to sleep. The second scientist played with the new tobacco bracelet on her wrist, and wrinkled her nose as a gentle gust of wind blew dust through the surrounding plants. She sneezed.
“Wait a second!” The second scientist shook the first scientist awake, looking excited. “What if we infected the tobacco with a virus?”
“What?” asked the first scientist sleepily, having all but forgotten about the idea.
“We could engineer a tobacco virus that would cause the plants to make more chromophores!” She gestured at the field around them. “We could just spray it on the field, like… like… like a giant sneeze!”
The first scientist jerked upright and gripped the second scientist’s shoulders tightly, her expression so intense it was frightening. The green of the tobacco all around them reflected in her eyes, giving her a Bruce Banner-ish, pre-hulk out look. The second scientist shivered.
“You,” whispered the first scientist, “are… a… genius!”
And that’s pretty much how it all went down.
This sort of thing takes time, though, so we shouldn’t expect the big tobacco/solar power juggernaut to get off the couch any time soon. Tobacco’s natural chromophore arrangement makes chains of molecules that could be ideal for absorbing light on solar panels, but they haven’t been made to produce electric current just yet. Once that gets figured out, however, it could lead to cheaper solar cells, with some biodegradable components. (On the other hand, they would likely have a shorter lifespan than other types of solar panels, but, hey, who doesn’t like throwing stuff away now and again?)
Courtesy Adem Rudin The University of Minnesota Solar Vehicle Project team provided a sneak preview of its newest car, Centaurus. The U of MN team placed 2nd in the 2005 North American Solar Challenge. The 2008 NASC will take place on July 13-22, 2008, on a route between Dallas, Texas and Calgary, Alberta.
"As many of the top cars were bumping up against the 65 mph (105 km/h) race speed limit in the 2005 event, race rules were changed in order to improve safety and limit performance. Open class cars are now only allowed 6 square meters of active cell area, and upright seating is required for both open and stock class cars."