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Solar technology advances may come from unlikely sources

21st Jan 2013

With a new year comes the standard speculation about what the fate of Australian solar power will be over the next 12 months.

An important angle to consider is the development of new solar technology.

Advancements in the efficiency and affordability of solar power systems could have a significant effect on their widespread implementation across Australia.

And once you start to pay attention to the work being done in labs around the world, you quickly notice that advances in solar energy science may come from the least expected places - like from the teeth of snails.

Researchers in California recently published the results of a study on a marine mollusc which could result in improved solar cells.

The gumboot chiton - a marine snail found in the waters of the Pacific coast of North America - may well be the unlikeliest contributor to solar panel efficiency.

The reason it is so interesting to researchers is that it has a unique conveyer belt-like system of teeth. These teeth contain magnetite, the hardest biomineral known on Earth, which enables the snail to grind rock in order to get to algae.

Associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UC Riverside David Kisailus studied how the snail develops the hard outer layer of magnetite on its teeth, publishing the results in the journal Advanced Functional Materials on January 16.

Why was this of interest? Because he believes if scientists can mimic the biomineralization process that takes place in the gumboot chiton, it will be possible to make nanomaterials in a cost-effective manner.

And not just any nanomaterials - Mr Kisailus believes he would be able to build materials which could advance the efficiency of solar cells and lithium-ion batteries.

That means solar panels that would capture more sunlight and convert it more efficiently to electricity, as well as batteries which needed much less time to recharge.

Meanwhile, researchers from Lund university in Sweden have shown that incorporating nanowires into solar cells can improve their efficiency and lower their cost.

Unlike current mass-produced solar panel technology, nanowire solar cells can utilise more of the spectrum of light coming from the sun.

In an article published on January 17 in the journal Science, Dr Magnus Borgstrom explains that his team of researchers were able to report efficiency of 13.8 per cent - surpassing the up to then unattained goal of ten per cent.

Nanowire solar cells are not yet in production, but research will continue to further develop the efficiency of this promising technology.

Posted by Mike Peacock

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