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Metallurgists at the University of Utah have cooked up an ingenious way to produce solar cells using something that nearly everyone has right at home: a microwave oven. Scientists used a basic microwave, one that was previously used by students to heat up food, to create a nanocrystal semiconductor. Creating a typical semiconductor requires a lot of time and can be toxic. But this new method is cleaner, cheaper and more efficient than ever before.

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Nanocrystal semiconductors are used in solar cells, LED lights, biological sensors and a variety of other systems. In the past, creating these semiconductors required toxic cadmium and arsenic and several hours to make. But Prashant Sarswat discovered that just 18 minutes in a microwave formed the necessary components to create the semiconductor. The process also allows manufacturers to use materials that are more readily available and less toxic than those traditionally needed.

This new process “is a fast way to make these particles that have a broad range of applications,” says Michael Free, a professor of metallurgical engineering. “We hope in the next five years there will be some commercial products from this, and we are continuing to pursue applications and improvements.”

Sarswat came across the idea of using a microwave rather than the traditional method when the department’s secretary was throwing out an old microwave oven. Free cautions that this isn’t an experiment you would want to try at home, but it certainly opens the door for a wide variety of applications, including cheaper and cleaner solar energy.

+ University of Utah