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Engineers Use A Quantum-Tweaked Virus To Make Better Solar Power

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Scientists from MIT and Eni, an Italian energy company, have improved solar energy cells with an unexpected helper: viruses.

Viruses are already nature's energy transfer junkies. That's one of the reasons they are so powerful within the human body—they are able to merge with their hosts quickly and efficiently to transfer energy from the host to the virus, gobbling up our bodily resources for themselves. These clever scientists wanted to harness that viral power to improve solar energy, so they manipulated a virus to do just that. And to make the virus perform even faster, they involved quantum mechanics. 

They took a virus they had already been working with for other applications, and manipulated it by placing it in contact with some synthetic dyes that mimicked the same actions a plant uses to perform photosynthesis. Then the virus essentially "learned" to perform much like a plant's chromofore, a vital part of how plants deliver the sun's energy to the rest of their planty parts. In essence, the researchers were getting the virus to perform like plants, on the quantum level.

It took a group of many scientists from different fields to make the discovery, from quantum physicists to biologists and engineers.

"It was really fun," says Angela Belcher, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and one of the creators of the useful virus, and co-author of the resulting paper. "A group of us who spoke different [scientific] languages worked closely together, to both make this class of organisms, and analyze the data. That's why I'm so excited by this."

The next step will be to use the viruses to go to work in solar cells. MIT says these discoveries could lead to much cheaper and more efficient solar cells, which make up the solar panels we see on rooftops.

Faster and cheaper solar panels won't come a moment too soon. According to Tech Insider, more than 1 million U.S. homes will have solar energy by 2016.

The new virus-driven technology was described in a scientific paper published in the journal Nature Materials.

Photo: Peter Jelliffe | Flickr

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