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Are Shrimp Shells The Future Of Solar Cells?

A tongue twister that might lead to renewable-energy breakthroughs.

Are Shrimp Shells The Future Of Solar Cells?
[Top Photo: Angorius via Shutterstock]

The cost of producing solar panels is one of the main obstacles to widespread solar adoption. And one of the biggest fixed costs in producing solar panels is the materials they are made from, like silicon.

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Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have created solar cells from two chemicals, chitosan and chitin, found in the shells of shrimp and other crustaceans. With these prototypes, researchers hope to dramatically decrease the cost of manufacturing photovoltaic systems compared to silicon-based solar cells or even other low-cost solar cells that are made using ruthenium.

“Right now they’re less than 1% efficient, which is obviously quite low, but it’s a good starting point,” says Joe Briscoe of Queen Mary. “Quite a few technologies start around that level, and we’re still in the very first stages.”

Mati Nitibhon via Shutterstock

The work ahead of them now is to increase the efficiency of these cells to a useful level. Briscoe believes that with this proof of concept, his team will be able to rapidly refine the process to achieve higher efficiency levels.

But even if these shrimp solar cells never reach the efficiency of silicon cells, it may not matter. Briscoe says it’s not an either/or decision between silicon-based or crustacean-based solar cells. Instead, he believes the latter can complement the former because shrimp-shell cells could be used in a variety of ways that conventional solar cells can’t be.

“These might not ever get as high-efficiency as the kinds of silicon solar cells that you’d put on a roof, but they should be able to be produced really quickly and cheaply,” says Briscoe. “They can be made into flexible structures for things like portable chargers so solar panels can go on your backup to charge your mobile phone.”

Flickr user Kevin Wheeler

The translucent materials of shrimp shells could also allow them to be used in innovative ways for building designs. For example, you could make partially transparent windows that filter out some light to be used in solar energy, but let through enough to still be functioning windows.

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“This is a really unexplored area where we could reduce the impact of buildings with unique design elements,” says Briscoe.

Although we’re still at least five years out from seeing this in consumer or commercial applications, the potential is enticing. And the fact that shrimp are a resource that–theoretically, at least–could be sustainably harvested and managed makes it even more appealing than solar cells that rely on mining for minerals.

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.

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