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Answer Found in Snail Teeth

Written by Swagato Chakravorty
Posted March 22, 2013

Snails could be the next big thing in battery technology.

David Kisailus, Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside’s Bourns College of Engineering, has discovered a surprising potential inherent in the biomineral that’s found in the teeth of the gumboot chiton snail.

As Green Car Reports notes, the snail has a conveyor belt-like layout of teeth in its mouth, which the animal uses to scrape away algae from rocks along the sea bed. It turns out that these teeth contain magnetite, which is, rather obviously, magnetic. Magnetite also happens to be the hardest known biomineral.

Now, Professor Kisailus has uncovered the process by which this extremely hard layer of teeth forms. Wards Auto explains this:

"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 entire process appears to occur at normal room temperate ranges, in more or less “benign” environmental conditions, says Green Car Reports.

How does this relate to battery technology, though? Well, we could mimic this natural process to “grow” minerals that are used in lithium-ion batteries, or in solar cells, while avoiding the energy typically used to produce these minerals.

If we can reduce the heat that is normally necessary to produce nanocrystals, then we’d be reducing the energy used by a great deal, which translates to massive cost savings. And as we know, high initial costs remain one of the greatest barriers to advanced battery technology research and mass adoption.

gumboot chiton snailMoreover, mimicking the snail further, the size, layout, and shape of nanomaterials could be further improved in order to maximize their efficiency when it comes to storing energy, recharging, and—in the case of solar cells—capturing sunlight to generate power.

The gumboot chiton snail, which is commonly called the “wandering meatloaf” due to its relatively large size and appearance (it is burnt orange in color), is typically found along the Pacific Coast from California up to Alaska, reports It first uses its set of 70-80 teeth to grind away at the rock and then consumes the algae that is scraped off in the process.

It’s fairly bizarre that the biological processes of an exotic sea animal could, possibly, hold one key to unlocking far greater battery efficiencies than currently possible. Appropriately translated to battery technology, we could end up with solar cells that can achieve much greater efficiencies in capturing solar energy than currently feasible, not to mention greater efficiency in converting them to electrical power.

Plus, lithium-ion and other batteries that rely on nanoparticles could see their usual charging times being reduced dramatically.

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All of that means advanced battery technologies in general would see impressive improvements across the board. The key, of course, is in eliminating the comparatively large amounts of energy we’re currently spending just to produce the nanocrystals that are increasingly being made use of in ever-advanced battery and energy storage technologies.

Were that energy to go down as we begin to grow the nanocrystals in some organic-artificial hybrid mechanism, it would automatically lead to crucial cost savings.

During the process of mineralization, the outer shell of the snail’s teeth—the part that actually contains magnetite—goes through a four-stage transformation, the abstract of Kisailus' report, published in Advanced Functional Minerals, reports.

First, a crystalline alpha-chitin organic matrix forms, which is the basic structural framework of the non-mineralized teeth; then, a synthesis of ferrihydrite crystals accumulates along this framework. After this, the ferrihydrite converts into magnetite, which is followed by an accumulation of magnetite crystal along the framework, causing the formation of parallel rods within the now-matured teeth.

It’s the core alpha-chitin matrix that seems to be crucial to determining the final density, diameter, and curvature of the rods, all of which in turn are essential to the physical form of the mature teeth.

The question now is how to translate this wholly biological process into something that can be replicated in laboratories in the context of battery power management and solar cell development.

Commercial testing isn’t yet on the table, but Professor Kisalius is already at work trying to replicate the biomineralization process to grow minerals that could be applied in lithium-ion battery or solar cell manufacturing.


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