Hybrid nanomaterial converts light and heat into electricity

A University of Texas (UT) at Arlington physics professor has helped create a hybrid nanomaterial that can convert light and thermal energy into electrical current. 

Working with Louisiana Tech University assistant professor Long Que, UT Arlington associate physics professor Wei Chen and graduate students Santana Bala Lakshmanan and Chang Yang synthesised a combination of copper sulphide nanoparticles and single-walled carbon nanotubes.

The team used the nanomaterial to build a prototype thermoelectric generator that is hoped to eventually produce milliwatts of power.

Paired with microchips, the technology could be used in devices such as self-powering sensors, low-power electronic devices and implantable biomedical micro-devices, Chen said.

‘If we can convert both light and heat to electricity, the potential is huge for energy production,’ Chen said in a statement. ‘By increasing the number of the micro-devices on a chip, this technology might offer a new and efficient platform to complement or even replace current solar cell technology.’

In lab tests, the new thin-film structure is said to have shown increases of as much as 80 per cent in light absorption when compared with single-walled nanotube thin-film devices alone, making it a more efficient generator.

Copper sulphide is also claimed to be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than the noble metals used in similar hybrids.

In October, the journal Nanotechnology published a paper on the work called ‘Optical thermal response of single-walled carbon nanotube-copper sulphide nanoparticle hybrid nanomaterials’.

In it, researchers describe how they could enhance the thermal and optical switching effects of the hybrid nanomaterial as much as 10 times by using asymmetric illumination, rather than symmetric illumination.

Chen is currently receiving funding from the US Department of Defense to develop nanoparticle self-lighting photodynamic therapy for use against breast and prostate cancers.

In 2010, he published results in the journal Nanomedicine demonstrating that near-infrared light could be used to heat copper sulphide nanoparticles for photothermal therapy in cancer treatment, which destroys cancer cells with heat between 41ºC and 45ºC.