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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Note on Emerging Science

Air Date: Week of

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Solar power just got a jolt from diatoms, tiny organisms that construct their own silica shells. These prehistoric creatures could have a twenty-first century use in super efficient solar power. Living on Earth’s Christine Parrish reports on a new breed of solar cell that uses diatoms to produce electricity-—even on cloudy days.


YOUNG: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. Just ahead, a tour of the tiniest farm in New York City, but first this note on emerging science from Christine Parrish.


PARRISH: Tommy is up against a new pinball wiz-kid: a tiny creature that slams around photons to score big points for solar power.


PARRISH: The new kid on the block is actually a very old organism called the diatom. . It's been around since the dinosaurs. And this single celled organism has a unique feature: it essentially builds its own glass house. Diatom shell walls are made of silica and full of tiny holes. These create a kind of fine mesh screen – the perfect nano-structure for trapping light. But to collect sunlight effectively, the silica must be transformed into photovoltaic material. So, the university researchers put the diatoms on a titanium dioxide diet—and the diatoms gobbled it up. Then, the diatom shells were dyed to attract even more photons.

And the engineers scored a triple ball. Photons attracted to the dye enter the screen-like shell and ping around in a frenzy – just like a pinball. Photons trapped inside the shell produce three times as much energy as they currently do in conventional solar cells. As an added bonus, they can even do it on cloudy days. And the low-tech diatom can easily and cheaply be grown in a lab. Solar panels using diatoms won’t be on the market tomorrow, but it might not be long. All the researchers need is a cash backer to get their ball into play. That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Christine Parrish.




For more on diatom power, click here.


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