The teeth of a marine snail found off the coast of California can create less costly and more efficient nanoscale materials to improve solar cells and lithium-ion batteries.
Snail teeth? Yes, snail teeth, said David Kisailus, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering.
Kisailus’ research focused on the gumboot chiton, the largest type of chiton, which can be up to a foot-long. They are found along the shores of the Pacific Ocean from central California to Alaska. They have a leathery upper skin, which is usually reddish-brown and occasionally orange, leading some to give it the nickname “wandering meatloaf.”
Over time, chitons have evolved to eat algae growing on and within rocks using a specialized rasping organ called a radula, a conveyer belt-like structure in the mouth that contains 70 to 80 parallel rows of teeth. During the feeding process, the first few rows of the teeth grind rock to get to the algae. They become worn, but new teeth are continuously produced and enter the “wear zone” at the same rate as teeth shed.
Kisailus, who uses nature as inspiration to design next generation engineering products and materials, started studying chitons five years ago because of his interest in abrasion and impact-resistant materials. He has previously determined the chiton teeth contain the hardest biomineral known on Earth, magnetite, which is the key mineral that not only makes the tooth hard, but also magnetic.
In his just-published paper, “Phase transformations and structural developments in the radular teeth of Cryptochiton stelleri,” Kisailus set out to determine how the hard and magnetic outer region of the tooth forms.
His work revealed this occurs in three steps. Initially, hydrated iron oxide (ferrihydrite) crystals 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. Finally, the magnetite particles grow along these organic fibers, yielding parallel rods within the mature teeth that make them so hard and tough.
“Incredibly, all of this occurs at room temperature and under environmentally benign conditions,” Kisailus said. “This makes it appealing to utilize similar strategies to make nanomaterials in a cost-effective manner.”
Kisailus is using the lessons learned from this biomineralization pathway as inspiration in his lab to guide the growth of minerals used in solar cells and lithium-ion batteries. By controlling the crystal size, shape and orientation of engineering nanomaterials, he believes he can build materials that will allow the solar cells and lithium-ion batteries to operate more efficiently. In other words, the solar cells will be able to capture a greater percentage of sunlight and convert it to electricity more efficiently and the lithium-ion batteries could need significantly less time to recharge.
Using the chiton teeth model has another advantage: Engineering nanocrystals can grow at significantly lower temperatures, which means significantly lower production costs.
While Kisailus focuses on solar cells and lithium-ion batteries, the same techniques could develop everything from materials for car and airplane frames to abrasion resistant clothing. In addition, understanding the formation and properties of the chiton teeth could help to create better design parameters for better oil drills and dental drill bits.