Transparent Crab Shells Hold Key to Better Solar Cells, Bendable Displays

The many gadget manufacturers working on concepts for bendable cell phones, as well as solar technology companies will be excited to hear about this breakthrough. Muhammad Iftekhar Shams and colleagues at Kyoto University in Japan have figured out how to make a crab shell turn transparent, which actually holds the key to improving the technology behind displays, solar cells and yep, bendable screens for devices like cell phones and tablets.

Arstechnica writes that the team used a dead crab and "treated its body to a brew of acids and chemicals. Hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide and ethanol stripped the body of minerals, proteins, lipids, fats and pigments. This left a crab shell made entirely of translucent chitin. Chitin is a long-chain polymer that is the main component of crustacean exoskeletons. Finally, the shell was immersed in an acrylic resin monomer. Polymerisation kicked in (monomer molecules react together to form polymer chains), and the team ended up with a perfect, ghostly recreation of a crab, only now completely see-through."

transparent crab shell image© RSC

The scientists then took chitin, crushed it and spread it into a nanocomposite sheet, treated with acrylic resin monomer and Voila! A transparent panel that maintains its stability even when heated, which makes it perfect for electronic devices and even solar cells.

The Royal Society of Chemistry reports, "[The team] measured the sheets' light transmittance over a range of wavelengths and temperatures. Current composite technologies, such as glass-fibre epoxy composites, show decreases in transmittance of up to 65 per cent as the temperature is increased to 100°C. However, the chitin-powder composite shows virtually no decrease in light transmittance at temperatures of up to 80°C."

Because the main ingredient is chitin, this leaves open the possibility of using waste from processing plants that shell crustaceans like lobster, shrimp and crab. Also, Arstechnica notes that chitin is also available from "cell walls of fungi, the exoskeletons of arthropods and insects, the tongue-like radulas of mollusks, and the beaks of cephalopods."

The material is an exciting possibility for improved solar panels, and perhaps more durable, less expensive displays -- but using crustaceans may have its downsides considering ocean acidification may be changing the way shells grow, causing some to dissolve and others to thicken. It's interesting to see a new link between electronics technology and ocean acidification, and that link may strengthen if this technology ends up being used by gadget manufacturers.

Transparent Crab Shells Hold Key to Better Solar Cells, Bendable Displays
By stripping crab shells of everything but chitin, reserachers in Japan have figured out a new key ingredient for improved displays and solar panels.

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