New Solar System Produces 50 Percent More Energy

A concentrating photovoltaic system (CPV) with embedded microtracking can produce over 50 percent more energy per day than standard silicon solar cells in a head-to-head competition, according to a team of engineers who field tested a prototype unit over two sunny days last fall.

Solar cells used to be expensive, but now they’re getting really cheap,” said Chris Giebink, Charles K. Etner Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering, Penn State. “As a result, the solar cell is no longer the dominant cost of the energy it produces. The majority of the cost increasingly lies in everything else — the inverter, installation labor, permitting fees, etc. — all the stuff we used to neglect.

This changing economic landscape has put a premium on high efficiency. In contrast to silicon solar panels, which currently dominate the market at 15 to 20 percent efficiency, concentrating photovoltaics focus sunlight onto smaller, but much more efficient solar cells like those used on satellites, to enable overall efficiencies of 35 to 40 percent. Current CPV systems are large — the size of billboards — and have to rotate to track the sun during the day. These systems work well in open fields with abundant space and lots of direct sun.

What we’re trying to do is create a high-efficiency CPV system in the form factor of a traditional silicon solar panel,” said Giebink.


Scalable Catalyst Produces Cheap Pure Hydrogen

The “clean-energy economy” always seems a few steps away but never quite here. Fossil fuels still power transportation, heating and cooling, and manufacturing, but a team of scientists from Penn State and Florida State University have come one step closer to inexpensive, clean hydrogen fuel with a lower cost and industrially scalable catalyst that produces pure hydrogen through a low-energy water-splitting process.

Hydrogen fuel cells can boost a clean-energy economy not only in the transportation sector, where fast fueling and vehicle range outpace battery-powered vehicles, but also to store electrical energy produced by solar and wind. This research is another step forward to reaching that goal.
Energy is the most important issue of our time, and for energy, fuel cells are crucially important, and then for fuel cells, hydrogen is most important,” said Yu Lei, Penn State doctoral student and first author of an ACS Nano paper describing the water-splitting catalyst she and her colleagues theoretically predicted and then synthesized in the lab. “People have been searching for a good catalyst that can efficiently split water into hydrogen and oxygen. During this process, there will be no side products that are not environmentally friendly.”

The current industrial method of producing hydrogen — steam reforming of methane — results in the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Other methods use waste heat, from sources such as advanced nuclear power plants or concentrated solar power, both of which face technical challenges for commercial feasibility. Another industrial process uses platinum as the catalyst to drive the water-splitting process. Although platinum is a near-perfect catalyst, it is also expensive. A cheaper catalyst could make hydrogen a reasonable alternative to fossil fuels in transportation, and power fuel cells for energy storage applications.

Molybdenum disulfide has been predicted as a possible replacement for platinum, because the Gibbs free energy for hydrogen absorption is close to zero,” said Mauricio Terrones, professor of physics, materials science and engineering, and chemistry, Penn State. The lower the Gibbs free energy, the less external energy has to be applied to produce a chemical reaction.


How To Capture Quickly Cancer Markers

A nanoscale product of human cells that was once considered junk is now known to play an important role in intercellular communication and in many disease processes, including cancer metastasis. Researchers at Penn State have developed nanoprobes to rapidly isolate these rare markers, called extracellular vesicles (EVs), for potential development of precision cancer diagnoses and personalized anticancer treatments.

Lipid nanoprobes

Most cells generate and secrete extracellular vesicles,” says Siyang Zheng, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical engineering. “But they are difficult for us to study. They are sub-micrometer particles, so we really need an electron microscope to see them. There are many technical challenges in the isolation of nanoscale EVs that we are trying to overcome for point-of-care cancer diagnostics.”

At one time, researchers believed that EVs were little more than garbage bags that were tossed out by cells. More recently, they have come to understand that these tiny fat-enclosed sacks — lipids — contain double-stranded DNA, RNA and proteins that are responsible for communicating between cells and can carry markers for their origin cells, including tumor cells. In the case of cancer, at least one function for EVs is to prepare distant tissue for metastasis.

The team’s initial challenge was to develop a method to isolate and purify EVs in blood samples that contain multiple other components. The use of liquid biopsy, or blood testing, for cancer diagnosis is a recent development that offers benefits over traditional biopsy, which requires removing a tumor or sticking a needle into a tumor to extract cancer cells. For lung cancer or brain cancers, such invasive techniques are difficult, expensive and can be painful.

Noninvasive techniques such as liquid biopsy are preferable for not only detection and discovery, but also for monitoring treatment,” explains Chandra Belani, professor of medicine and deputy director of the Cancer Institute,Penn State College of Medicine, and clinical collaborator on the study.

We invented a system of two micro/nano materials,” adds Zheng. “One is a labeling probe with two lipid tails that spontaneously insert into the lipid surface of the extracellular vesicle. At the other end of the probe we have a biotin molecule that will be recognized by an avidin molecule we have attached to a magnetic bead.”


Nanoparticles And Immunotherapy, Allies To Eradicate Cancer

Some researchers are working to discover new, safer ways to deliver cancer-fighting drugs to tumors without damaging healthy cells. Others are finding ways to boost the body’s own immune system to attack cancer cells. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University   (Penn State) have combined the two approaches by taking biodegradable polymer nanoparticles encapsulated with cancer-fighting drugs and incorporating them into immune cells to create a smart, targeted system to attack cancers of specific types.


The traditional way to deliver drugs to tumors is to put the drug inside some type of nanoparticle and inject those particles into the bloodstream,” said Jian Yang, professor of biomedical engineering, Penn State. “Because the particles are so small, if they happen to reach the tumor site they have a chance of penetrating through the blood vessel wall because the vasculature of tumors is usually leaky.”

The odds of interacting with cancer cells can be improved by coating the outside of the nanoparticles with antibodies or certain proteins or peptides that will lock onto the cancer cell when they make contact. However, this is still a passive drug delivery technology. If the particle does not go to the tumor, there is no chance for it to bind and deliver the drug.

Yang and Cheng Dong, professor of biomedical engineering, wanted a more active method of sending drugs to the cancer wherever it was located, whether circulating in the blood, the brain, or any of the other organs of the body.

“I have 10 years of working in immunology and cancer,” Dong said. “Jian is more a biomaterials scientist. He knows how to make the nanoparticles biodegradable. He knows how to modify the particles with surface chemistry, to decorate them with peptides or antibodies. His material is naturally fluorescent, so you can track the particles at the same time they are delivering the drug, a process called theranostics that combines therapy and diagnostics. On the other hand, I study the cancer microenvironment, and I have discovered that the microenvironment of the tumor generates kinds of inflammatory signals similar to what would happen if you had an infection.”

Immune cells, which were built to respond to inflammatory signals, will be naturally attracted to the tumor site. This makes immune cells a perfect active delivery system for Yang’s nanoparticles. The same technology is also likely to be effective for infectious or other diseases, as well as for tissue regeneration, Dong said.


How To Detect Contaminants In One Single Molecule

A technique to combine the ultrasensitivity of surface enhanced Raman* scattering (SERS) with a slippery surface invented by Penn State researchers will make it feasible to detect single molecules of a number of chemical and biological species from gaseous, liquid or solid samples. This combination of slippery surface and laser-based spectroscopy will open new applications in analytical chemistry, molecular diagnostics, environmental monitoring and national security.

The researchers, led by Tak-Sing Wong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, call there invention SLIPSERS, which is a combination of Wong’s slippery liquid-infused porous surfaces (SLIPS), which is a biologically inspired surface based on the Asian pitcher plant, and SERS.

Detect contaminants in one single moleculeWe have been trying to develop a sensor platform that allows us to detect chemicals or biomolecules at a single molecule level whether they are dispersed in air, liquid phase, or bound to a solid,” Wong said. “Being able to identify a single molecule is already very difficult. Being able to detect those molecules in all three phases, that is really challenging.”

Our technique opens up larger possibilities for people to use other types of solvents to do single molecule SERS detection, such as environmental detection in soil samples. If you can only use water, that is very limiting,” Yang said. “In biology, researchers might want to detect a single base pair mismatch in DNA. Our platform will give them that sensitivity.”

One of the next steps will be to detect biomarkers in blood for disease diagnosis at the very early stages of cancer when the disease is more easily treatable. “We have detected a common protein, but haven’t detected cancer yet,” Yang said.

*Raman spectroscopy is a well-known method of analyzing materials in a liquid form using a laser to interact with the vibrating molecules in the sample. The molecule’s unique vibration shifts the frequency of the photons in the laser light beam up or down in a way that is characteristic of only that type of molecule.


Bubbles Open The Doors For Next-Generation Displays

To combine the speed of optical communication with the portability of electronic circuitry, researchers use nanoplasmonics — devices that use short electromagnetic waves to modulate light on the nanometer scale, where conventional optics do not work. However, aiming and focusing this modulated light beam at desired targets is difficult. A research team from the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) has find a new way to bend light beams to your whim. A few tiny liquid bubbles may be all that is necessary to open the doors for next-generation, high-speed circuits and displays. The main advantage of a bubble lens is just how quickly and easily researchers can reconfigure the bubble’s location, size, and shape — all of which affect the direction and focus of any light beam passing through it.

refraction pattern
Laboratory images of a light beam without a bubble lens, followed by three examples of different bubble lenses altering the light

There are different solid-state devices to control (light beams), to switch them or modulate them, but the tenability and reconfigurability are very limited,” said Tony Jun Huang, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics. “Using a bubble has a lot of advantages

How to Produce Hydrogen From Water At Low Cost

Cheaper clean-energy technologies could be made possible thanks to a new discovery. Research team members led by Raymond Schaak, a professor of chemistry at Penn State, have found that an important chemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water is effectively triggered — or catalyzed — by a nanoparticle made of nickel and phosphorus, two inexpensive elements that are abundant on Earth. The results of the research will be published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Schaak explained that the purpose of this nanoparticle is to help produce hydrogen from water — a process that is important for many energy-production technologies including fuel cells and solar cells. “Water is an ideal fuel, because it is cheap and abundant, but we need to be able to extract hydrogen from it,” Schaak said. Hydrogen has a high energy density and is a great energy carrier, Schaak explained, but it requires energy to produce. To make its production practical, scientists have been hunting for a way to trigger the required chemical reactions with an inexpensive catalyst. Platinum works, but it is expensive and relatively rare, so Schaak and his team have been searching for alternative materials.

hydrogen-electric carThere were some predictions that nickel phosphide might be a good candidate, and we already had been working with nickel phosphide nanoparticles for several years,” Schaak said. “It turns out that nanoparticles of nickel phosphide are indeed active for producing hydrogen and are comparable to the best known alternatives to platinum.”


How to improve Graphene performance

Putting  into a microchip Graphenehas proven difficult. Scientists are working hard on it as graphene is the wonder material that could solve the problem of making ever faster computers and smaller mobile devicesThe answer may lie in new nanoscale systems based on ultrathin layers of materials with exotic properties. Called two-dimensional layered materials, these systems could be important for microelectronics, various types of hypersensitive sensors, catalysis, tissue engineering and energy storage. Researchers at Penn State have applied one such 2D layered material, a combination of graphene and hexagonal boron nitride, to produce improved transistor performance at an industrially relevant scale.


Other groups have shown that graphene on boron nitride can improve performance two to three times, but not in a way that could be scaled up. For the first time, we have been able to take this material and apply it to make transistors at wafer scale,” said Joshua Robinson, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Penn State.