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Boron Gets a Clean Energy Makeover

Rice researchers investigate boron for high effiency electronicsThough boron  is better known for the making of bleach, as a sort of metalloid cousin to silicon it also has some intriguing potential in solar energy research. Now a team of researchers at Rice University is exploring the possibility that atom-thin sheets of boron could lead to the next generation of high efficiency, low cost solar cells, possibly leapfrogging over the “It Girls” of the emerging materials world, graphene and carbon nanotubes.

Boron, graphene and carbon nanotubes

Graphene is an atom-thin sheet of carbon discovered just a few years ago, and it has been causing waves of excitement over its potential for use in photovoltaics and electronic equipment. However, the obstacle is to come up with a low cost method for fabricating graphene in large quantities, at a predictable quality.

Carbon nanotubes are another new class of material under development with applications for next-generation clean technology, but they face similar fabrication challenges.

The Rice team is using computer modeling to investigate various configurations of boron sheets, and has found that a one-atom thick boron lattice could be engineered to look exactly like the signature hexagonal, chicken-wire formation of graphene. The sheets could be layered over carbon nanotubes to achieve a uniformity that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

Wild dreams of boron

Theoretical physicist Boris Yakobson, who leads the Rice team, sees a great potential for boron-coated nanotubes to serve as high efficiency energy conductors:

“If I dream wildly, I like to think boron nanotubes would make a great energy-transporting quantum wire,” said Yakobson, Rice’s Karl F. Hasselmann Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and professor of chemistry. “It would have the benefits of carbon, but without the challenge of selecting a particular symmetry.”

Like graphene and carbon nanotubes, though, boron still has to take that giant step from the lab table to the factory floor. Stay tuned.

Image: Some rights reserved by fdecomite.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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