Biogenic optical devices for solar energy conversion: glass-like shells of diatoms help turn light into energy in dim conditions

Published: 14 December 2022

A McGill research team led by Professors Mark Andrews (Department of Chemistry) and David Plant (Electrical Engineering) has shown how the glass-like shells of phytoplankton (diatoms) help these microscopic organisms perform photosynthesis in dim light conditions. Despite amounting to only about 1% of the global plant biomass, phytoplankton account for about 50% of the planet’s photosynthetic activity and at least half of the world’s oxygen production. This makes diatoms an active subject of research, especially for the role of the nanoporous glass shell as an integrated optics device for harvesting, distributing and concentrating solar energy.


Their Optical Materials Express publication entitled, Solar energy harvesting mechanisms of the frustules of Nitzschia filiformis diatoms, provides a better understanding of how diatoms harvest and interact with light in ways that could lead to improved solar cells, sensing devices and optical components (Figure above). The paper is the culmination of the PhD thesis research of lead author Yannick D’Mello and student collaborators, Santiago Bernal, Dan Petrescu, and James Skoric.t


The research is the first to model the entire glass shell (frustule), including its inherent disorder and the integrated behavior of localized optical device functions. The study provides quantitative support to the hypothesis that the ornately patterned frustule enhances photosynthesis in the cell. The findings are tantalizing for how they make the case for cultivating diatoms as sustainably mass-manufacturable devices with applications in solar energy, carbon sequestration, sensing, medicine, and metamaterials.


The researchers note that this work commemorates their colleague Dan Petrescu, who passed away last year. The research would not have been possible without his insights, assistance and dedication.


For the complete publication, see Optical Materials Express

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