Solar energy is leading in renewable energy sources and the aspects surrounding the efforts to harvest light are gaining importance. One such aspect is increasing the light absorption, where heliotropism comes into play. Heliotropism, the ability to track the sun across the sky, can be integrated with solar cells for more efficient photon collection and other optoelectronic systems. Inspired by plants, which optimize incident sunlight in nature, several researchers have made artificial heliotropic and phototropic systems. This project aims to design, synthesize and characterize a material system and evaluate its application in a phototropic system. A gold nanoparticle (Au NP) incorporated poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPAAm) hydrogel was synthesized as a photo-thermo-responsive material in our phototropic system. The Au NPs generate heat from the incident via plasmonic resonance to induce a volume phase change of the thermo-responsive hydrogel PNIPAAm. PNIPAAm shrinks or swells at temperature above or below 32°C. Upon irradiation, the Au NP-PNIPAAm micropillar actuates, specifically bending toward the incident light and precisely following the varying incident angle.
Swelling ratio tests, bending angle tests with a static incident light and bending tests with varying angles were carried out on hydrogel samples with varying Au NP concentrations. Swelling ratios ranging from 1.45 to 2.9 were recorded for pure hydrogel samples and samples with very low Au NP concentrations. Swelling ratios of 2.41 and 3.37 were calculated for samples with low and high concentrations of Au NPs, respectively. A bending of up to 88° was observed in Au NP-hydrogel pillars with a low Au NP concentration with a 90° incident angle. The light tracking performance was assessed by the slope of the pillar Bending angle (response angle) vs. Incident light angle plot. A slope of 1 indicates ideal tracking with top of the pillar being normal to the incident light, maximizing the photon absorption. Slopes of 0.82 and 0.56 were observed for the low and high Au NP concentration samples. The rapid and precise incident light tracking of our system has shown the promise in phototropic applications.