New model paves the way to sustainable optical devices

New model paves the way to sustainable optical devices

A new study conducted has revealed how the glassy shells of diatoms tend to help such microscopic organisms carry out photosynthesis in gloomy conditions.

A new optical study reveals how the glass-like shells of diatoms help these single-celled organisms to photosynthesize even in the direst of conditions. Their shells contain holes that change light behavior based on size, spacing, and configuration. Credit: Santiago Bernal, McGill University

A better understanding of how these phytoplankton tend to harvest and communicate with light could lead to improved sensor devices, solar cells and optical components.

The computational model and toolkit we developed could pave the way to mass-producible, sustainable optical devices and more efficient light-harvesting tools based on diatom shells. This could be used for biomimetic sensing devices, new telecommunications technologies, or affordable ways to generate clean energy.

Santiago Bernal, Research Team Member, McGill University

Diatoms are unicellular organisms found in most bodies of water. Their shells are encased in holes that react differently to light depending on spacing, size, and configuration.

In the newspaper Express for optical materials, the scientists, led by McGill University’s David V. Plant and Mark Andrews, report the first optical examination of a complete diatom shell. They studied how different sections of the shell, or shell, respond to sunlight and how that response is related to photosynthesis.

Based on our results, we estimate that the frustule can contribute a 9.83 percent boost to photosynthesis, particularly during high-to-low solar transitions. Our model is the first to explain the optical behavior of the entire cone. So it contributes to the hypothesis that the frustulus enhances photosynthesis in diatomssaid Yannick D’Mello, the paper’s lead author.

Combination of microscopy and simulation

Diatoms have evolved over millions of years to survive in any aquatic environment. Their envelope is made up of multiple regions that work together to harvest sunlight. To better understand the optical response of diatom shells, the scientists integrated computer-optical simulations together with different microscopy methods.

Scientists began imaging the architecture of the frustulus using four high-resolution microscopy modalities: scanning electron microscopy, dark-field microscopy, near-field optical microscopy, and atomic force microscopy. In addition, they used such images to inform a series of models the scientists built to study each part of the frustule through 3D simulations.

Using these simulations, scientists analyzed how different colors of sunlight communicated with the structures and identified three main mechanisms of solar radiation: redistribution, capture and storage. This method allowed them to integrate different optical concepts of the frustule and show how they work collectively to support the photosynthesis to be performed.

We used different simulations and microscopy techniques to examine each component separately. We then used this data to create a study of how light interacts with the structure, from the moment it is captured, where it is then distributed, how long it is stored and to the moment in where it is likely to be absorbed by the cell.

Yannick D’Mello, first author of the study, Department of Electrical and Communications Engineering, McGill University

Increase in photosynthesis

The study revealed that the wavelengths at which the shell interacted competed with those absorbed at the time of photosynthesis. This means it may have evolved to capture sunlight. The scientists also discovered that different regions of the frustulus could reallocate light to absorb it throughout the cell.

This means that the envelope evolved to improve the cell’s exposure to ambient light. Their results also showed that light circulates within the dish for a significant amount of time to support photosynthesis during transition periods that vary from high to low illumination.

The newly developed Frustule model could make it possible to breed diatom species that tend to harvest light at different wavelengths, allowing them to be tailored for specific applications.

These light-gathering mechanisms of diatoms could be used to improve the absorption of solar panels by allowing the sunlight to be collected at more angles, partially eliminating the panel’s dependence on facing the sun directly.

Santiago Bernal, Research Team Member, McGill University

The scientists are currently working on refining their model and plan to use their new toolkit to study other species of diatoms. They then planned to extend the model beyond the light interactions within a single frustule to analyze behaviors caused by multiple frustules.

Magazine reference:

D’Mello, Y. et al. (2022) Solar Energy Harvesting Mechanisms of the frustules of Nitzschia filiformis diatoms.


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