New Brilliant Iron Molecule May Be the Key to Cheap Solar Energy

The novel molecule can function both as a photocatalyst to produce fuel and in solar cells to produce electricity, replacing the expensive and rare metals in use today.

New Brilliant Iron Molecule May Be the Key to Cheap Solar Energy
Photo Courtesy: Nils Rosemann

Scientists are looking at some of the most unlikely sources for energy production, partly motivated by academic and research objectives, and partly to create a new framework of energy production and extraction.

Though some raise eyebrows due to perceived feasibility challenges like China’s artificial sun ambitions, or the device that was developed to convert exhaust into renewable energy, the sheer number of examples of creative energy generation are truly inspiring.

Now, researchers have produced an iron molecule with photocatalytic promise, and it could provide large benefits in terms of both (1) electricity generation in solar cells and (2) fuel production. As iron is a more plentiful and cheaper to supply source of metal, this will also have an impact in the industry.

Advanced Molecule Design Leads to Progress

A growing body of research in the last decade has shown the strong potential that other metals can have in photocatalysis, with scientists focusing on iridium and ruthenium more and more “due to the access they provide to new synthetic spaces through new reaction mechanisms”. The challenge, however, lies in how rare they both are.

The team produced its results by altering their approach to the molecular coordination, which allowed them to create an iron molecule that resulted in iron-based light that was observable at room temperature, a first in science, although their work builds on previous studies in the same area.

“The good result depends on the fact that we have optimized the molecular structure around the iron atom”, explains colleague Petter Persson of Lund University, who was also part of the study.

Next Steps in the Research

A revised, or expanded, roadmap of solar energy production could be in the works, according to the researchers. This could also mean developments in another number of areas which rely on iron molecules.

“Our results now show that by using advanced molecule design, it is possible to replace the rare metals with iron, which is common in the Earth’s crust and therefore cheap”, says Chemistry Professor Kenneth Wärnmark of Lund University in Sweden.

Beyond the promising potential of the iron molecule, the fact that the breakthrough came now is what surprised the researchers the most. Wärnmark summed it up best when he said, “We believed it would take at least ten years.”

Still one wonders, however if, given the rate at which we are consuming materials, that one day a similar team will be announcing a cheaper alternative to the very rare iron.

This research serves as good news in the sense that, although we are aware of the powerful and undeniable benefits of solar energy, we must also ensure that the materials behind the technology also support a realistic and sustainable vision. With no end in sight to the momentum behind solar energy, this breakthrough is an important step.

Details about the study appear in a paper, titled “Luminescence and reactivity of a charge-transfer excited iron complex with nanosecond lifetime”, which was published November 29th in the Science journal.



A New Record Breaking, Flexible Solar Cell Could Power Cities of the Future

A major stride towards solar-powered urban areas.

By: Danny Paez

Traditional photovoltaic solar cells are getting relatively effective at converting light to electrical power. These usually silicon-based devices already power millions of homes around the world. But they are also frustratingly rigid, which makes it difficult to incorporate them into packed, heterogeneous urban environments. To solve the problem, a team of researchers has developed a flexible solar cell that recently broke an efficiency record in its category.

It’s called a solution-based organic single-junction solar cell, which means it’s made of two types of two different layers of polymer deposited on a bendable film. Scientists at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany and the South China University of Technology were able to achieve 12.25 percent conversion efficiency on a surface area of one square centimeter, a notable step up from the previous 9.7 percent record. The group published their results in the journal Nature Energy.

Conventionally-used photovoltaic cells are still largely winning the conversion competition, with a maximum theoretical efficiency of 29 percent. But improved flexible solar cells offer a compelling trade-off: That they’re flexible means that we could one day have buildings in densely-packed cities literally wrapped in a layer of solar panels. Being able to cover much more surface area could make up for what the cells presently lack in efficiency.

Solar farms have proven useful, but take up a lot of space to be fully effective.

Massive solar farms from China to California have revolutionized how we can make use of the incredible amount of light energy the sun beams at Earth every day. But these kinds of arrays are astronomically expensive and require vast swaths of unused land.

The flexible alternative presented by this research uses fewer materials — thus bringing down manufacturing costs — and can be implemented over existing infrastructure. Dr. Ning Li, a materials scientist at FAU, said this collaborative effort has found a formula that will likely lead flexible solar cell research moving forward.

“I think the best way to describe our work is by imagining a box of Lego bricks’, explained Li. “Our partners in China inserted and adjusted single molecular groups into the polymer structure and each of these groups influences a special characteristic that is important for the function of solar cells.”

Future skyscrapers could be embedded with flexible solar panels.

The next step for this project is to develop a larger prototype to begin testing. These flexible cells won’t replace reliable silicon-based cells, instead, they’ll complement them. Rural and suburban homes with more space will probably continue using highly-efficient, but rigid cells. But when future skyscrapers move imperceptibly to accommodate the wind, the solar panels of the future could some day bend along with them.




Renewable Energy Might be Able to Green a Desert

Wind turbines and solar panels appear able to boost nearby rains — and plant growth

By: Alison Pearce Stevens

Large wind and solar farms could change the amount of rain in nearby areas. ZHAOJIANKANG/ISTOCKPHOTO

Wind turbines and solar panels that create electricity are examples of environmentally friendly — or “green” — technology. A new study finds that these forms of renewable energy might be green in another sense, too. Large collections of those turbines or so-called farms of solar panels appear capable of bringing rains to the desert. And that would allow more plants to grow.

Eugenia Kalnay is an expert on weather and climate. She works at the University of Maryland in College Park. She also has worked for the National Weather Service and NASA. In each place, she has used computers to model weather and climate. Such models help scientists understand how temperatures and rain might change over time. Day-to-day changes are known as weather. Longer-term patterns, such as seasonal trends that persist for years, describe a region’s climate.

Wind turbines and solar panels can change how air moves. As winds move through the spinning blades of a turbine, some of their power is converted to electricity. This weakens those winds. Turbines may also change the path of the winds, directing some share of them around the outside of the wind farm.

Both technologies also can affect nearby temperatures. Solar panels can raise the adjacent temperature by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit). Turbines also boost temperatures, largely by keeping the nights warmer. Warm air rises. If it rises high enough, and holds much water vapor, it could eventually condense into clouds that produce rain.

In these ways, wind and solar farms could affect climate. But would the changes be large enough to matter? That’s what Kalnay and others wanted to know. Their new computer models show that a mix of these energy technologies might boost rainfall and eventually transform deserts into plant-rich areas.

Putting it to the test

Kalnay teamed up with Safa Motesharrei, a systems scientist at Maryland. Systems scientists study how complex systems, such as climate, function. The Maryland pair recruited Yan Li, a geoscientist at Beijing Normal University in China, to join them. These three brought in other scientists from Maryland, Italy and China to join in their study. Building large wind or solar farms just to study their question was not an option. It would be too costly. It might also create unexpected climate issues. So the team instead used computer models to probe how wind turbines and solar farms might alter a region’s climate.

Weather and climate models work from data collected over decades. They include data on the weather that developed when certain conditions were in place. These conditions included temperature and rains or snowfall. They also included the air pressure, winds, sunlight and the movement of heat into and out of the ground and large bodies of water.

For their new study, the researchers developed a model of North Africa’s Sahara Desert. The world’s largest desert, the Sahara supports little life. Although few people live here, many reside in the areas around it. So putting wind and solar farms in this area could help meet their electricity needs.

The Sahara is the world’s largest desert. Immediately south of its border is a not-quite-so-dry region known as the Sahel. Rainer Lesniewski/iStockphoto

The southern edge of the desert is an area called the Sahel. In this transition zone, the desert becomes a grassy savanna dotted with trees. There isn’t much rainfall in the Sahel, and climate change has reduced those rains in recent years. Because growing crops helps Continue Reading »


Superconducting Tape Could Lead to Lower-Cost Wind Power

You may see smaller, more effective turbines

By: Jon Fingas



Wind power is limited in part by how expensive it can be to make each turbine. You may need roughly a ton of rare earth metals per machine… and that adds up. It could soon be much less expensive, however. The EU-backed EcoSwing project recently upgraded a wind turbine in Denmark with superconducting tape that reduces the required amount of rare earth elements to as little as 1kg (2.2lbs). That not only dramatically reduces the costs (down from $45.50/kg to $18.70/kg), it reduces weight and size requirements. You can produce the same power for about half the weight and volume of a conventional turbine, the University of Twente’s Marc Dhalle told Chemistry World.

The tape is made using a ceramic superconducting layer with gadolinium-barium-copper oxide, with a steel ribbon at its back and protection against metal poisoning through layers of magnesium oxide and silver. And cooling isn’t an issue — the EcoSwing team used the same sort of cryo-cooling you normally see in MRI scanners.

The technology is still in the experimental stage. The next step is a more aggressively designed turbine that takes fuller advantage of the lighter, smaller technology. The benefits for real-world use are already evident, mind you. This could lower the costs of building wind farms, and might lead to less obtrusive farms with smaller turbines. All told, it could make renewable energy more accessible.




Self-Assembled Carbon Nanotube Antennas for Solar Power Revolution

By: Brian Wang

NovaSolix’s carbon nanotube (CNT) antennas are small enough to match the nano-scale wavelengths of sunlight. Antennas can convert electromagnetic spectrum much more efficiently than photovoltaic (PV) cells. When perfected, NovaSolix antennas will capture over four times the energy of current solar panels. They will reach nearly 90% efficiency versus ~20% for todays solar panels.

NovaSolix has invented a self-assembling antenna array solar cell which will be 2-4 times more efficient at a less than one-tenth the cost per watt of existing solar.

NovaSolix claims to have demonstrated a proof of concept to third parties that has touched 43% efficiency. That’d suggest a 72 cell solar module near 860 watts, with a 90% solar cell pushing 1700 watts.

They could buy used manufacturing hardware and retrofit them in the early stages of growth. The first manufacturing lines could cost $4.1 million, and would initially produce ~45% efficient modules, at a clip of 20MW/year with a proposed price of 10¢/W. At full efficiency, costs are cut in half and volumes per year doubled.

Solar Powered Car Gets

Sono Motors is a separate company that makes an electric car with built-in solar power supplemental charging. A sunny day can provide 18 miles of driving range on a 24% efficient solar cell. If NovaSolix increased solar cell efficiency to 90% then one day of sunlight driving would be 67 miles.