By enlisting the help of tiny viruses, researchers were able to boost the efficiency of electrical output in a solar cell by about a third.

A team led by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently published their findings on the use of viruses to help enhance solar panel efficiency in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. The report states that the viruses performed detailed, molecular-level work to bring about significant improvements in solar electricity output.

More specifically, the viruses help make possible the work of the real efficiency providers: carbon nanotubes.

Earlier research had shown that carbon nanotubes, which are microscopic, hollow cylinders of pure carbon, can enhance electricity output by helping with the collection of electrons from the solar cell’s surface.

What does that mean? Well, according to an MIT news release, solar cells create electricity when sunlight hits a light-sensitive material and causes it to discharge said electrons. At that point, the electrons can be harnessed to produce an electric current.

Two problems have prevented carbon nanotubes from being used effectively in the electron collection process. First, the nanotubes tend to clump together, which diminishes their effectiveness. In addition, the production of nanotubes results in different types, some of which are usable and others are not.

Here is where the virus can help. According to the MIT news release, the researchers found that a genetically engineered version of a virus called M13, which normally infects bacteria, can be used to prevent the nanotubes from clumping and keep the usable tubes separate from the unusable ones.

The researchers did not test a conventional solar system, which uses silicon in the active layer. Instead, they used a type of solar cell known as ‘dye-sensitived solar cells,’ which is a lightweight and inexpensive version that uses titanium dioxide in the active layer. Nevertheless, the researchers say the same virus technique could be used in other types of systems, including quantum-dot and organic solar cells.

The end result? According to the report, the viruses help enhance the power conversion efficiency to 10.6 percent from 8 percent, representing an almost one-third improvement.