Snail's teeth could help develop future battery tech--no, really

Antony Ingram
15 March 2013


We often cover the progress of battery technologies here on Green Car Reports, and while always of interest, few new discoveries are really that surprising.

The potential of a biomineral found in the teeth of a marine snail isn't one of those unsurprising discoveries.

Studies at the University of California, Riverside, suggest future batteries and solar cells could use materials formed in a process found in the gumboot chiton snail, reports Wards Auto.

The large sea snail features a conveyor belt-like arrangement of teeth in its mouth, used to rasp algae from rocks on the sea bed. Grinding away at rocks wears the teeth down, but they're constantly replaced by further rows. Even so, the teeth are very hardy--containing the hardest-known biomineral, magnetite. As its name suggests, this substance is also magnetic.

Assistant Professor at the university, David Kisailus, has studied chitons for many years and says he has discovered how this hard, magnetic layer of teeth forms--the full details of which are revealed in the Advanced Functional Materials journal.

According to Wards, the process is as follows:

"Hydrated iron-oxide (ferrihydrite) crystals first 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."

The particles grow along the organic fibers, forming parallel rods within the teeth that make them as hard as they are.

Sounds complex, but the upside to this process is that it takes place at room temperature and in what Kisailus describes as "benign environmental conditions".

To simplify that further, it means a similar process could be used to grow minerals used in lithium-ion batteries and in solar cells, without the same intensive energy normally required. Reduce the heat needed to form certain nanocrystals, and you reduce both energy use and cost.

Cost is key for both battery and solar cell production, but there are other benefits too.

Using this growing process used by the snail, the size and shape of nanomaterials could be used to improve a battery's energy storage and recharging rates, and capture sunlight more efficiently in solar cells.

This potential hasn't yet been tested, but it shows that battery advancements could come from the most unlikely of places.

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