You probably learned about diatoms, a prolific type of algae, back in grade school. But you may not have learned these single-celled organisms, which are inexpensive and can be found in different types of water and even tree bark, can manipulate light . Now scientists are putting them in organic solar cells to enhance their energy efficiency.

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Could diatoms hold the key to better solar power? A research team from Yale University, Princeton University, Lincoln University, and the NASA Glenn Research Center is utilizing them in organic solar cells, a lower-cost alternative to conventional solar cells. The so-called jewels of the sea have a nanostructured silica or glass skeleton, and study lead author and Yale Ph.D. student Lyndsey McMillon-Brown said, “They help trap and scatter light for the algae to photosynthesize, so we’re able to use something directly from nature and put it in a solar cell.”

Related: Ancient Marine Diatoms Could be Used to Make Biofuels, Electronics and Health Foods

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Organic solar cells usually suffer from a design issue: they need to have thin layers, so their efficiency is restricted. Nanostructures that trap and scatter light can help overcome that issue – but are typically too expensive for production on a large scale. Not so with cheap diatoms. The researchers put the algae – abundant in nature – right in the solar cells’ active layer. They saw the same electrical output levels even as they cut the amount of material necessary for the active layer.

The team employed a grinding process because at first the diatoms were too big for the active layer. They think they could obtain even better results by utilizing different species and tailoring them to the correct size. McMillon-Brown’s focus is biomimicry; she said, “We’re always on the hunt for new patterns in nature because we believe that nature solves all our engineering problems – we just have to find the solutions.”

The journal Organic Electronics published the research online this month.

Via Yale University

Images via Depositphotos, Wikimedia Commons and Yale University