Sun-Powered Chemistry: The Science of Graphing the Structure of Gels With Light

A lot of my students have asked me this question: “Do solar panels work with solar or moonlight?” They’re referring to their research project on how to create a carbon nanotube scaffold for scanning electron microscopy applications. Of course, the other students wanted to know if these solar panels would work with microneedles. To test these questions, I went out to my garden and dug some holes. When the holes were full of dirt, I threw a handful of microneedles into each hole, then connected them together with copper wire.

My students discovered that microneedles are indeed very small, but they do transfer heat very well. To test this concept, I took a piece of glass from my garden, cut a hole in it, and inserted a few microneedles of silicon in each hole. The glass started to melt, even before getting hot enough to melt the glass.

Now, I must admit that I was a bit curious about the reaction of these tiny needle-like solar cells. The glass-glass-salt combination is extremely corrosive. But once it was cooled, the glass started to leak. The next question I asked my graduate student was, “What if we used carbon dioxide to burn the silicon?” She had performed her digital medicine experiments with carbon dioxide in the presence of oxygen.

It turned out that she did not need to use the sun-powered chemistry I had shown her; she could use her lower-carbon cement, and just drill holes in the lower part of the cement block. After she flattened the block, she applied some silicon crystals on the flat surface, creating a thin layer. When this layer was exposed to the light of the sun, it produced heat that caused the carbon atoms to split, and create energy. The researchers found that this trick could be used to create a source of power similar to solar panels.

However, they also discovered that this trick was useless for converting light into electricity. Their solar generator still needs carbon-dioxide, and the holes have to be very small for the silicon crystals to catch the light. They also found that their new method of converting carbon dioxide into energy requires two types of electrodes: a thin film of carbon electrode and a thin film of graphene. Graphene is an ideal substance for conducting electricity because it is thin, strong, and very conductive. Thus, it is an excellent match for the scanning electron microscope that my graduate student had used in her experiment.

So, this was the story of the invention of the solar microneedles. Not only did my graduate student demonstrate that this is a practical technology that could be implemented into a real-world setting, but she also showed that we can use carbon nanotechnology to achieve even greater efficiency. The ingenious idea of using carbon nanotechnology for energy conversion and creating microelectronic devices from carbon has practically undone all of the difficulties that have been present in traditional electronics. Now we can imagine a future where our clothes can be energy efficient, cool, and invisible, and we don’t have to wear special protective clothing to carry around power packs in order to fly.

Although this sort of technology has been around for several years, nobody has been able to incorporate carbon nanotechnology into a way to make something as small and sharp as a scanning electron microscope. We now know how to use these tiny scanning tools to discover the molecular basis of organic compounds, and then to use chemistry to change the structure. This opens up many exciting opportunities for medical researchers, and holds great promise for the future of medicine. These innovations hold out the promise of being able to cure serious diseases like cancer in a more efficient and less toxic manner.

Although this seems like a very far-fetched dream for us today, if history teaches us anything, it’s possible. Even with the expense of a space station and the difficulty of sending supplies through the air, we still have the power to send our medical laboratory samples to space and bring back amazing findings from there. It would be interesting to see what it would be like to be on the other side of the solar system and to send samples back. It may just be possible to use virtual patients for virtual patients in virtual hospitals.

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