File this one under “holy crap,” but scientists at MIT have discovered molecules that spontaneously assemble themselves into a pattern that can turn light into electricity — essentially a self-creating solar panel. In a petri dish.
The researchers set out to create a synthetic process that imitates photosynthesis. Certain molecules respond to light by releasing electrons; the trick was discovering a substance that sticks them together in a consistent structure. Phospholipids do just that, and they also attach themselves to carbon nanotubes, which conduct electricity. With the nanotubes holding the phospholipids in a uniform alignment, the photo reactive molecules are all exposed to light at once, and the tube acts as a wire that then collects the resulting electrical current.
The most interesting part is that the tiny solar array can be disassembled and reassembled just by adding chemicals. Spray on an additive and the molecular components break apart into a soup; remove it with a membrane, and the system spontaneously puts itself together.
After repeatedly having the system go through disassembly and reassembly, the scientists found the system had no loss in efficiency. That could prove to be the best development of all, since losing efficiency over time can be a big problem with some solar systems. It all makes sense: if you want to build better solar panels, why not look for inspiration from the most successful solar-energy generators of all: plants.