Tag Archives: cell

New kind of “tandem” solar cell developed: MIT Research

Researchers combine two types of photovoltaic material to make a cell that harnesses more sunlight.

By David Chandler


CAMBRIDGE, Mass–Researchers at MIT and Stanford University have developed a new kind of solar cell that combines two different layers of sunlight-absorbing material in order to harvest a broader range of the sun’s energy. The development could lead to photovoltaic cells that are more efficient than those currently used in solar-power installations, the researchers say.

The new cell uses a layer of silicon — which forms the basis for most of today’s solar panels — but adds a semi-transparent layer of a material called perovskite, which can absorb higher-energy particles of light. Unlike an earlier “tandem” solar cell reported by members of the same team earlier this year — in which the two layers were physically stacked, but each had its own separate electrical connections — the new version has both layers connected together as a single device that needs only one control circuit.

The new findings are reported in the journal Applied Physics Letters by MIT graduate student Jonathan Mailoa; associate professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi; Colin Bailie and Michael McGehee at Stanford; and four others.

“Different layers absorb different portions of the sunlight,” Mailoa explains. In the earlier tandem solar cell, the two layers of photovoltaic material could be operated independently of each other and required their own wiring and control circuits, allowing each cell to be tuned independently for optimal performance.

By contrast, the new combined version should be much simpler to make and install, Mailoa says. “It has advantages in terms of simplicity, because it looks and operates just like a single silicon cell,” he says, with only a single electrical control circuit needed.

One tradeoff is that the current produced is limited by the capacity of the lesser of the two layers. Electrical current, Buonassisi explains, can be thought of as analogous to the volume of water passing through a pipe, which is limited by the diameter of the pipe: If you connect two lengths of pipe of different diameters, one after the other, “the amount of water is limited by the narrowest pipe,” he says. Combining two solar cell layers in series has the same limiting effect on current.

To address that limitation, the team aims to match the current output of the two layers as precisely as possible. In this proof-of-concept solar cell, this means the total power output is about the same as that of conventional solar cells; the team is now working to optimize that output.

Perovskites have been studied for potential electronic uses including solar cells, but this is the first time they have been successfully paired with silicon cells in this configuration, a feat that posed numerous technical challenges. Now the team is focusing on increasing the power efficiency — the percentage of sunlight’s energy that gets converted to electricity — that is possible from the combined cell. In this initial version, the efficiency is 13.7 percent, but the researchers say they have identified low-cost ways of improving this to about 30 percent — a substantial improvement over today’s commercial silicon-based solar cells — and they say this technology could ultimately achieve a power efficiency of more than 35 percent.

They will also explore how to easily manufacture the new type of device, but Buonassisi says that should be relatively straightforward, since the materials lend themselves to being made through methods very similar to conventional silicon-cell manufacturing.

One hurdle is making the material durable enough to be commercially viable: The perovskite material degrades quickly in open air, so it either needs to be modified to improve its inherent durability or encapsulated to prevent exposure to air — without adding significantly to manufacturing costs and without degrading performance.

This exact formulation may not turn out to be the most advantageous for better solar cells, Buonassisi says, but is one of several pathways worth exploring. “Our job at this point is to provide options to the world,” he says. “The market will select among them.”

The research team also included Eric Johlin PhD ’14 and postdoc Austin Akey at MIT, and Eric Hoke and William Nguyen of Stanford. It was supported by the Bay Area Photovoltaic Consortium and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Source: News Office

New way to turn genes on

Technique allows rapid, large-scale studies of gene function.

By Anne Trafton

CAMBRIDGE, MA — Using a gene-editing system originally developed to delete specific genes, MIT researchers have now shown that they can reliably turn on any gene of their choosing in living cells.

This new application for the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system should allow scientists to more easily determine the function of individual genes, according to Feng Zhang, the W.M. Keck Career Development Professor in Biomedical Engineering in MIT’s Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering, and a member of the Broad Institute and MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

This approach also enables rapid functional screens of the entire genome, allowing scientists to identify genes involved in particular diseases. In a study published in the Dec. 10 online edition of Nature, Zhang and colleagues identified several genes that help melanoma cells become resistant to a cancer drug.

Silvana Konermann, a graduate student in Zhang’s lab, and Mark Brigham, a McGovern Institute postdoc, are the paper’s lead authors.

A new function for CRISPR

The CRISPR system relies on cellular machinery that bacteria use to defend themselves from viral infection. Researchers have previously harnessed this cellular system to create gene-editing complexes that include a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9 bound to a short RNA guide strand that is programmed to bind to a specific genome sequence, telling Cas9 where to make its cut.

In the past two years, scientists have developed Cas9 as a tool for turning genes off or replacing them with a different version. In the new study, Zhang and colleagues engineered the Cas9 system to turn genes on, rather than knock them out.

Scientists have tried to do this before using proteins that are individually engineered to target DNA at specific sites. However, these proteins are  difficult to work with. “If you use the older generation of tools, getting the technology to do what you actually want is a project on its own,” Konermann says. “It takes a lot of time and is also quite expensive.”

There have also been attempts to use CRISPR to turn on genes by inactivating the part of the Cas9 enzyme that cuts DNA and linking Cas9 to pieces of proteins called activation domains. These domains recruit the cellular machinery necessary to begin reading copying RNA from DNA, a process known as transcription.

However, these efforts have been unable to consistently turn on gene transcription. Zhang and his colleagues, Osamu Nureki and Hiroshi Nishimasu at the University of Tokyo, decided to overhaul the CRISPR-Cas9 system based on an analysis they published earlier this year of the structure formed when Cas9 binds to the guide RNA and its target DNA. “Based on knowing its 3-D shape, we can think about how to rationally improve the system,” Zhang says.

In previous efforts, scientists had tried to attach the activation domains to either end of the Cas9 protein, with limited success. From their structural studies, the MIT team realized that two small loops of the RNA guide poke out from the Cas9 complex and could be better points of attachment because they allow the activation domains to have more flexibility in recruiting transcription machinery.

Using their revamped system, the researchers activated about a dozen genes that had proven difficult or impossible to turn on using the previous generation of Cas9 activators. Each gene showed at least a twofold boost in transcription, and for many genes, the researchers found multiple orders of magnitude increase in activation.

Genome-scale activation screening

Once the researchers had shown that the system was effective at activating genes, they created a library of 70,290 guide RNAs targeting all of the more than 20,000 genes in the human genome.

They screened this library to identify genes that confer resistance to a melanoma drug called PLX-4720. This drug worksDrugs of this type work well in patients whose melanoma cells have a mutation in the BRAF gene, but cancer cells that survive the treatment can grow into new tumors, allowing the cancer to recur.

To discover the genes that help cells become resistant, the researchers delivered CRISPR components to a large population of melanoma cells grown in the lab, with each cell receiving a different guide RNA targeting a different gene. After treating the cells with PLX-4720, they identified several genes that helped the cells to survive — some previously known to be involved in drug resistance, as well as several novel targets.

Studies like this could help researchers discover new cancer drugs that prevent tumors from becoming resistant.

“You could start with a drug that targets the mutated BRAF along with combination therapy that targets genes that allow the cell to survive. If you target both of them at the same time, you could likely prevent the cells from developing resistance mechanisms that enable further growth despite drug treatment,” Konermann says.

Scientists have tried to do large-scale screens like this by delivering single genes carried by viruses, but that does not work with all genes.

Zhang’s lab also plans to use this technique to screen for genes that, when activated, could correct the effects of autism or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. He also plans to make the necessary reagents available to academic labs that want to use them, through the Addgene repository.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; the Keck, Searle Scholars, Klingenstein, Vallee, and Simons foundations; and Bob Metcalfe.

Sourse: MIT News

Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, left, and Professor Hongjie Dai have developed a low-cost electrolytic device that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen at room temperature. The device is powered by an ordinary AAA battery. (Mark Shwartz / Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy)

Stanford scientists develop water splitter that runs on ordinary AAA battery

Hongjie Dai and colleagues have developed a cheap, emissions-free device that uses a 1.5-volt battery to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen gas could be used to power fuel cells in zero-emissions vehicles.


In 2015, American consumers will finally be able to purchase fuel cell cars from Toyota and other manufacturers. Although touted as zero-emissions vehicles, most of the cars will run on hydrogen made from natural gas, a fossil fuel that contributes to global warming.

Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, left, and Professor Hongjie Dai have developed a low-cost electrolytic device that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen at room temperature. The device is powered by an ordinary AAA battery. (Mark Shwartz / Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy)
Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, left, and Professor Hongjie Dai have developed a low-cost electrolytic device that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen at room temperature. The device is powered by an ordinary AAA battery. (Mark Shwartz / Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy)

Now scientists at Stanford University have developed a low-cost, emissions-free device that uses an ordinary AAA battery to produce hydrogen by water electrolysis.  The battery sends an electric current through two electrodes that split liquid water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Unlike other water splitters that use precious-metal catalysts, the electrodes in the Stanford device are made of inexpensive and abundant nickel and iron.

“Using nickel and iron, which are cheap materials, we were able to make the electrocatalysts active enough to split water at room temperature with a single 1.5-volt battery,” said Hongjie Dai, a professor of chemistry at Stanford. “This is the first time anyone has used non-precious metal catalysts to split water at a voltage that low. It’s quite remarkable, because normally you need expensive metals, like platinum or iridium, to achieve that voltage.”

In addition to producing hydrogen, the novel water splitter could be used to make chlorine gas and sodium hydroxide, an important industrial chemical, according to Dai. He and his colleagues describe the new device in a study published in the Aug. 22 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

The promise of hydrogen

Automakers have long considered the hydrogen fuel cell a promising alternative to the gasoline engine.  Fuel cell technology is essentially water splitting in reverse. A fuel cell combines stored hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, which powers the car. The only byproduct is water – unlike gasoline combustion, which emits carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Earlier this year, Hyundai began leasing fuel cell vehicles in Southern California. Toyota and Honda will begin selling fuel cell cars in 2015. Most of these vehicles will run on fuel manufactured at large industrial plants that produce hydrogen by combining very hot steam and natural gas, an energy-intensive process that releases carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

Splitting water to make hydrogen requires no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gases. But scientists have yet to develop an affordable, active water splitter with catalysts capable of working at industrial scales.

“It’s been a constant pursuit for decades to make low-cost electrocatalysts with high activity and long durability,” Dai said. “When we found out that a nickel-based catalyst is as effective as platinum, it came as a complete surprise.”

Saving energy and money

The discovery was made by Stanford graduate student Ming Gong, co-lead author of the study. “Ming discovered a nickel-metal/nickel-oxide structure that turns out to be more active than pure nickel metal or pure nickel oxide alone,” Dai said.  “This novel structure favors hydrogen electrocatalysis, but we still don’t fully understand the science behind it.”

The nickel/nickel-oxide catalyst significantly lowers the voltage required to split water, which could eventually save hydrogen producers billions of dollars in electricity costs, according to Gong. His next goal is to improve the durability of the device.

“The electrodes are fairly stable, but they do slowly decay over time,” he said. “The current device would probably run for days, but weeks or months would be preferable. That goal is achievable based on my most recent results”

The researchers also plan to develop a water splitter than runs on electricity produced by solar energy.

“Hydrogen is an ideal fuel for powering vehicles, buildings and storing renewable energy on the grid,” said Dai. “We’re very glad that we were able to make a catalyst that’s very active and low cost. This shows that through nanoscale engineering of materials we can really make a difference in how we make fuels and consume energy.”

Other authors of the study are Wu Zhou, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (co-lead author); Mingyun Guan, Meng-Chang Lin, Bo Zhang, Di-Yan Wang and Jiang Yang, Stanford; Mon-Che Tsai and Bing-Joe Wang, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology; Jiang Zhou and Yongfeng Hu, Canadian Light Source Inc.; and Stephen J. Pennycook, University of Tennessee.

Principal funding was provided by the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) and the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford and by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Mark Shwartz writes about energy technology at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.