Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Arizona State University have developed a type of solar panel known as SunBOTs. These ground-breaking artificial sunflowers can harvest up to 400% more energy.
Plants bend toward the sun, exhibiting a behaviour called phototropism; Scientists have bio-mimicked this tropistic behaviour in a light-responsive artificial sunflower that can harvest solar energy. Each SunBOT consists of a ‘stem’ made of a material that reacts to light and has an energy-harvesting flower at the top, which is made of standard light-absorbing material silicon, that is commonly used in solar cells. The device is less than 1 millimetre wide. When a part of the SunBOT’s stem is exposed to light, it heats up and shrinks, causing the stem to point the flower towards the light source. Once the SunBOT’s flower is aligned with the light source, the stem stops bending as it creates a shadow that allows the material to cool down and stop shrinking.
The university scientists have recently published their findings in Nature Nanotechnology, where they have explained their rationale in using smart responsive materials to model the natural phototropism exhibited by plants. The sunflower nanotechnology presented by UCLA’s Ximin He and her research team focuses on biologically inspired materials like sunflowers, where polymers mimic the natural responses of plant, animal, or even fungal organisms to work more efficiently. Professor He stated that the newly developed technology would have the capacity to increase the amount of energy collection two-fold in comparison to the collection of a stationary solar panel, and this would make future solar energy much more efficient. The research team reiterated that the SunBOTs could provide a long-sought solution to energy harvesting via the autonomous maximisation of the input power density.