More-efficient solar cells, and fast-charging lithium-ion batteries, are likely in the near future thanks to some new research on how the teeth of a type of marine snail grow. The newly-gained insights will lead to the less-expensive and more-efficient production of nanoscale materials, according to the researcher behind this work.
The research was started as a way to learn more about abrasion and impact-resistant materials. So the research was focused on the gumboot chiton, a foot-long sea snail that is found along the coasts of North America, from California to Alaska. The teeth of these chitons contains what is thought to be the hardest biomineral on the Earth, magnetite. So not only are the teeth very strong, but they are also magnetic. These incredibly strong teeth evolved because, essentially, the snails have to cut through rock to get to the algae that they eat. The teeth are located on a conveyer belt-like structure in their mouth that slowly rotates new teeth onto the tip of the structure, where they are then used to cut rock.
What is really interesting about this though, is how the incredibly-hard and magnetic outer region of the tooth forms.
The research “revealed that this occurs in three steps. Initially, hydrated iron oxide (ferrihydrite) crystals nucleate on a fiber-like chitinous (complex sugar) organic template. These nanocrystalline ferrihydrite particles convert to a magnetic iron oxide (magnetite) through a solid-state transformation. Finally, the magnetite particles grow along these organic fibers, yielding parallel rods within the mature teeth that make them so hard and tough.”
“Incredibly, all of this occurs at room temperature and under environmentally benign conditions,” said David Kisailus, the assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering behind this research. “This makes it appealing to utilize similar strategies to make nanomaterials in a cost-effective manner.”
“Kisailus is using the lessons learned from this biomineralization pathway as inspiration in his lab to guide the growth of minerals used in solar cells and lithium-ion batteries. By controlling the crystal size, shape and orientation of engineering nanomaterials, he believes he can build materials that will allow the solar cells and lithium-ion batteries to operate more efficiently. In other words, the solar cells will be able to capture a greater percentage of sunlight and convert it to electricity more efficiently and the lithium-ion batteries could need significantly less time to recharge.”
Another large advantage to this production method is that the engineering nanocrystals can be grown at much lower temperatures that is currently the case. This should lead to considerably lower production costs.
The new research was just published January 16th in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.
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