The Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California, Riverside, is well known for its work with renewable energy, including solar power. Now, an assistant professor there has discovered a new way to improve the manufacturing of solar cells—by using the teeth of a marine snail.
David Kisailus' findings were recently published in a paper in the Advanced Functional Materials scientific journal. The paper—coauthored by his former and current students and scientists at Harvard University, Chapman University, and Brookhaven National Laboratory—focuses on the use of the snail teeth as a material in solar cells and lithium-ion batteries.
The marine snail in question is a gumboot chiton found off the coast of central California all the way up to Alaska. These chitons can grow up to a foot long and have the nickname "wandering meatloaf," in honor of the color of their upper skin. Kisailus, who specializes in chemical and environmental engineering at the university, began studying the creature five years ago and found their teeth are made of magnetite, the hardest mineral and one that also gives the teeth magnetic properties.
Those hard teeth come in handy. The gumboot chitons live on algae growing on rocks—which means they use those teeth to grind up the rocks in order to consume the algae. The chitons have a ribbon-like organ, a radula, which has 70 to 80 rows of teeth. As the teeth eventually do wear down over time, new teeth are produced to take their place.
Kitsailus' published study details how the teeth grow their hard outer layer, a three-stage process in which hydrated iron oxide transforms into magnetite. Because this process is easily replicable, Kisailus is using it as a model to grow minerals used for solar cells and batteries. By having control over the way the minerals grow, Kisailus feels he can create solar cell materials that will allow the cells to harness more sunlight for energy. He adds that the same process could be used for other items, such as cars, clothing, and tools.