Liquid metal has been used to create silicon at much lower temperatures than previously possible - and could dramatically reduce the cost of solar panels and electronics.
Converting sand into silicon usually takes a huge amount of energy. Several intensive reactions in excess of 2000 degrees F are required to turn silicon dioxide into crystalline silicon, and as a result it has a major impact on the environment.
But thanks to a new technique that might be about to change.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have been able to make silicon at just 180 degrees F, after working out how to use liquid metal.
It's similar to a trick you can do in your kitchen, the team explains, where water is super-saturated with sugar which can then spontaneously form rock candy.
"Instead of water, we're using liquid metal, and instead of sugar, we're using silicon," said Stephen Maldonado, professor of chemistry and applied physics.
His team made a solution with silicon tetrachloride and layered it over a liquid gallium electrode. They explain in a press release that the electrons from the metal converted the silicon tetrachloride into pure silicon, which was dissolved in the liquid metal.
So far the crystals of silicon forming on the surface are small, but the researchers hope to push the technique to the point where they could make larger versions for use in solar panels, for instance.
"It's too premature to estimate precisely how much the process could lower the price of silicon, but the potential for a scalable, dramatically less expensive and more environmentally benign process is there," Maldonado said. "The dream ultimately is to go from sand to crystalline silicon in one step. There's no fundamental law that says this can't be done."
Below: The top scientific breakthroughs of 2013
Are We Really Here?
Physicists announced evidence that we may be living in an enormous computer in 2012 - or at least the chance they might be able to test if we are. It's a slight announcement in some ways, but as by far our most popular running story of 2012 <a href="www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/12/12/physicists-universe-simulation-test-university-of-washington-matrix_n_2282745.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-tech">it's clearly among your favourites to be the most significant in the coming decades.</a>
Mars Rover Curiosity
In July Nasa <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/12/14/nasa-proves-mars-rover-curiosity-self-portrait-conspiracy_n_2298684.html">successfully landed the $2.5 billion Mars rover Curiosity</a> on the surface of Mars using an untested 'sky crane' suspended by rocket boosters. It is the largest and most complex vehicle ever to make it to another planet, and will search for signs of life for more than two years.
Higgs Boson Discovered
To huge cheers and standing ovations, scientists at the world's biggest particle accelerator claimed the discovery of a new subatomic particle in July, calling it "consistent" with the long-sought Higgs boson popularly known as the "God particle" which gives matter its mass.
Earth-Like Exoplanets Discovered
Several breakthroughs in the search for Earth-like planets outside our Solar System were made in 2012, <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20249753">including the discovery of what appears to be a 'Super Earth' in November.</a> These finds take us closer than ever to finding a world capable of sustaining life other than Earth. The discovery <a href="http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2012/11/newly-discovered-earth-like-planet-could-be-habitable/">of HD 40307g</a> was probably the most exciting, as it was shown to be orbiting its sun in a so-called "goldilocks zone" just like Earth.
Nasa Maps The Moon
Nasa's Grail mission launched two craft - Ebb and Flow - into orbit around the Moon to produce the most detailed gravity map of any body in the Solar System - including Earth. They crashed (on purpose) in December, but their work could help us understand how our world was formed - and if life might be hidden in the depths of Mars.
Many breakthroughs in medicine were made in 2012, but among the most exciting was a study in July <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-03-08/aids-cure-quest-advances-as-merck-cancer-medicine-attacks-hidden-hiv.html">which showed how a drug for a rare type of cancer was able to "flush out" deposits of HIV</a>. Work is still ongoing - and a cure is still far away - but it points in the direction of true breakthroughs in future.
Space X Docks With ISS
SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft became the first commercial ship to dock successfully with the International Space Station and deliver supplies.
Robot Helps In Heart Surgery
A robot was able to participate <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-20028502"> in open-heart surgery</a> for the first time in Britain in 2012, raising hopes that the machines may eventually lead to man's emancipation from hardship and illness, and not our total annihilation.
Climate Change: Still Awful
A host of breakthroughs in the study of climate change made for depressing - and occasionally hopeful - reading in 2012. The rate of polar melting <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/aug/11/arctic-sea-ice-vanishing"> was shown to be at fresh record levels</a>, and the most aggressive scenarios were <a href="http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=climate-science-predictions-prove-too-conservative">said to be too conservative</a>. But fresh talks at Doha, while they accomplished little in solid policy, raised some hopes at a widespread and transformative shift in public opinion.
Man Jumps From Space
Red Bull Stratos pilot Felix Baumgartner of Austria jumped from a capsule more than 24 miles up in 2012 - the highest jump ever and alone a significant technical achievement - but also among the most-watched public science experiments in many years.
Teleportation (albeit of information, not people) came a step closer to reality in 2012 after an international team <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/09/120905134356.htm ">was able to send quantum information</a> more than 143 kilometres in "mid air".
A study in April was able to construct a working "quantum computer" network for the first time, indicating a truly transformative technological breakthrough in computing <a href="an elementary network for exchanging and storing quantum information">in which data could be transmitted by single atoms.</a>