09 June 2006

Research in Progress

Usually, I limit myself to scientific results that are clear and well established. Today, we'll dip our toes into the realm of the merely possible.

Solar Power and More

Contemporary solar cells turn one solar photon into one electron, even if the photon has enough energy to release more. Similar problems plague other solid state optical devices, like solid state lasers. The quantum mechanical equivalent of friction dissipates the rest, knocking atoms back and forth to create heat instead of freeing up more electrons to generate current. Scientists are now onto a phenomena known as "quantum dots" that may escape that friction by making semiconductors of precisely the right size, in the vicinity of 8 nanometers in current trials, with the right materials.

Current photovoltaic cells are 15-20% efficient. With quantum dots, it might be possible to more than double this efficiency to 42%.

Will it happen? There are two downsides. First, the semi-conductors often involve molecules made of highly toxic lead, and rare metalic compounds such as telluride. Yes, no shit, such stuff actually exists, I looked it up. Thus, solar cells with quantum dots could become both environmentally unfriendly and expensive.

Second, it isn't clear that the nanoscale phenomena can be easily scaled up to make useful amounts of current. A highly efficient solar cell that only generates nanocurrents has only niche applications.

An Asthma Cure?

Denver's own National Jewish hospital has a trial in place, reported on the front page of yesterday's Denver Post, which would revolutionize our understanding of asthma, the respiratory ailment that causes constricted breathing and often limits the physical activity of children.

Researchers think that bacteria may cause as many as half of chronic asthma cases. The bacteria may be the same, or a similar bacteria to the one that causes pneumonia, but less intense. This wmeans that it might be possible to cure many cases of asthma with the right antibiotic.

The downside? Asthma is probably not just a bacterial infection. It may also include elements of genetic suceptibility, allergen exposure and prior immune system conditioning.

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