Organic solar cells closer to reality as molecular genome project comes online

By James Maynard , Jun 25, 2013 08:44 AM EDT

Solar cells could be created from organic materials, leading to the development of a new generation of equipment creating electricity using the same basic materials as biology. In a research project being compared to the Human Genome Project which mapped human DNA, this new Materials Genome Project lists the electrical-producing capabilities of millions of organic molecules. Researchers from Harvard University released a database on June 24 containing over two million molecules that could prove useful in the construction of organic solar cells and semiconductors. Because of this, organic solar cells could quickly double in efficiency and begin to rival silicon technology.

"In many ways, biology is far ahead of chemistry in these efforts. You can find the genome of a frog online, or the genome of a worm, but you cannot do that for the quantum properties of molecular materials. This database will provide access to the 'secret sauce' of these materials, so people can explore innovative new ideas," Alán Aspuru-Guzik, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard, said.

While most silicon-based solar cells convert about 15-20 percent of the sunlight that reaches them into electricity, the current rating for organic (carbon-based) materials still hovers around four to five percent. The new database identified 35,000 compounds that can deliver efficiency ratings of ten percent or higher. These new materials were then categorized into the database before being made available for free both to researchers and the general public.

The database was compiled as part of the Materials Genome Initiative, run by the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). It was developed by researchers from Harvard University's Clean Energy Project, along with scientists from Stanford University and IBM. The project was compiled on a massive network of computers using volunteers from around the world as part of the World Community Grid.

The development of this database began with the identification of 26 molecular fragments which could be capable of producing electricity from sunlight. These segments could combine in over three million forms. Each was analyzed by the computer network, leaving over two million chemicals suitable for investigation as part of future electronic materials.

If effective organic solar cells were developed, that technology could provide a way to produce solar cells cheaply and in large quantities. They could easily be created in any shape on 3D printers, rolled up, and delivered to the over two billion people around the world who do not currently have electricity.

The database was complied in an effort to assist researchers in basic research into new materials for organic solar cells and semiconductors, but like the Human Genome Project which mapped our DNA, what may come of the research is unknown.

"You cannot anticipate what can be done with your data," Gerbrand Ceder, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, said.

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