A Solar Panel That Washes Itself

self wash solar panel A Solar Panel That Washes Itself

It’s cleaning up space junk, and is giving us lab-on-chip biofilters for detecting contamination.Now nanotechnology has produced a coating for windows or solar panelsthat repels grime and dirt. Expanded battery storage capacities for thenext electric car could be within reach too.

New Tel Aviv University research, just published in Nature Nanotechnology,details a breakthrough in assembling peptides at the nano-scale levelthat could make these futuristic visions come true in just a few years.

Operating in the range of 100 nanometers (roughly one-billionth of ameter) and even smaller, graduate student Lihi Adler-Abramovich and ateam working under Prof. Ehud Gazit in TAU’s Department of MolecularMicrobiology and Biotechnology have found a novel way to control theatoms and molecules of peptides so that they “grow” to resemble smallforests of grass.

These “peptide forests” repel dust and water — a perfect self-cleaning coating for windows or solar panels which, when dirty, become far less efficient.

“This is beautiful and protean research,” says Adler-Abramovich, aPh.D. candidate. “It began as an attempt to find a new cure forAlzheimer’s disease. To our surprise, it also had implications forelectric cars, solar energy and construction.”

As cheap as the sweetener in your soda

A world leader in nanotechnology research,Prof. Gazit has been developing arrays of self-assembling peptides madefrom proteins for the past six years. His lab, in collaboration with agroup led by Prof. Gil Rosenman of TAU’s Faculty of Engineering, hasbeen working on new applications for this basic science for the lasttwo years.

Using a variety of peptides, which are as simple and inexpensive toproduce as the artificial sweetener aspartame, the researchers createtheir “self-assembled nano-tubules” in a vacuum under hightemperatures. These nano-tubules can withstand extreme heat and areresistant to water.

“We are not manufacturing the actual material but developing abasic-science technology that could lead to self-cleaning windows andmore efficient energy storage devices in just a few years,” saysAdler-Abramovich. “As scientists, we focus on pure research. Thanks toProf. Gazit’s work on beta amyloid proteins, we were able to develop atechnique that enables short peptides to ’self-assemble,’ forming anentirely new kind of coating which is also a super-capacitor.”

As a capacitor with unusually high energy density, the nano-techmaterial could give existing electric batteries a boost — necessary tostart an electric car, go up a hill, or pass other cars and trucks onthe highway. One of the limitations of the electric car is thrust, andthe team thinks their research could lead to a solution to thisdifficult problem.

“Our technology may lead to a storage material with a high density,”says Adler-Abramovich. “This is important when you need to generate alot of energy in a short period of time. It could also be incorporatedinto today’s lithium batteries,” she adds.

Windex a thing of the past?

Coated with the new material, the sealed outer windows ofskyscrapers may never need to be washed again — the TAU lab’s materialcan repel rainwater, as well as the dust and dirt it carries. Theefficiency of solar energy panels could be improved as well, as a rainshower would pull away any dust that might have accumulated on thepanels. It means saving money on maintenance and cleaning, which isespecially a problem in dusty deserts, where most solar farms areinstalled today.

The lab has already been approached to develop its coatingtechnology commercially. And Prof. Gazit has a contract with drugmega-developer Merck to continue his work on short peptides for thetreatment of Alzheimer’s disease — as he had originally foreseen.