How Tofu Salt Could Make Solar Power Cheaper and Safer

By Botkin-Kowacki, Eva | The Christian Science Monitor, June 26, 2014 | Go to article overview

How Tofu Salt Could Make Solar Power Cheaper and Safer


Botkin-Kowacki, Eva, The Christian Science Monitor


That tofu on your plate may have more to it than protein. It may contain the recipe to revolutionize solar energy.

Solar power is typically thought to be among the cleanest of energy sources. But one method of manufacturing solar cells is quite toxic. A new study points to a safer and cheaper method, using an ingredient that is also used to make tofu.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool discovered that a salt used to produce the fermented bean curd, as well as to de-ice roads, could be a new ingredient in making solar power cleaner and less expensive.

"If renewable energy is going to compete with fossil fuels, then the cost has to come down. Great strides have already been made, but the findings in this paper have the potential to reduce costs further," study author and University of Liverpool physicist Jon Major said in a news release.

Currently, the most popular way to harness solar energy is through large, thick silicon plates that convert sunlight to electricity. But these iconic panels are expensive and inflexible.

The cheaper alternative, thin film solar cells, are unpopular for another reason: toxicity. To work effectively, the semiconductor cadmium telluride, which composes a layer of a popular kind of thin- film solar cell, must be treated with a chemical called cadmium chloride.

But cadmium chloride is so toxic it cannot be leaked into the water supply without poisoning generations of fish. It is widely believed to be poisonous to humans as well.

So Dr. Major and his colleagues tested other compounds that can perform the same function as cadmium chloride.

They found that magnesium chloride - a nontoxic compound derived from naturally occurring saltwater - worked just as well as its toxic counterpart. Furthermore, the natural compound costs only $0.001 per gram industrially, while the cadmium chloride costs $0. …

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