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
Suggested For You
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more