Learning from leaves
If you lived inside a leaf, you'd have all the free energy you could want. Sound a little crazy? Scientists have already developed prototypes.
The method is called artificial photosynthesis, and Carl Wamser, professor of chemistry, believes we'll see commercially viable applications within the decade.
A leaf's green chlorophyll membrane absorbs sunlight and uses that solar energy to push electrons that exist in the membrane into the plant cell in a form the plant can use for energy.
Wamser (pictured at left) and about 50 others researchers worldwide are developing synthetic membranes using a similar process to convert sunlight into electricity—on a scale that one day could be used in homes and skyscrapers.
To date, scientists have created artificial membranes that work; however, these prototypes are only about five percent efficient (compared to silicon cells, which can be 10 to 15 percent efficient). But Wamser is optimistic that current research—including his—will one day result in membranes so efficient, durable, and thin they could be embedded in, say, roof shingles or siding to power a building.
"Scientists like to point out," says Wamser, "that in one hour the amount of sunlight that falls on the Earth is more than all the energy used worldwide in an entire year."
Wamser, a longtime solar power enthusiast, is also working with more traditional solar panels. Using a $144,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant, he'll be testing nine configurations of solar panels. The panels are set to begin operation on top of Cramer Hall in summer 2008.