A plant-like micro-organism mostly found in oceans could make the manufacture of products, from iridescent cosmetics, paints and fabrics to credit card holograms, cheaper and greener.
The tiny single-celled diatom, which first evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, has a hard silica shell which is iridescent in other words, the shell displays vivid colours that change depending on the angle at which it is observed. This effect is caused by a complex network of tiny holes in the shell which interfere with light waves.
UK scientists have now found an extremely effective way of growing diatoms in controlled laboratory conditions, with potential for scale-up to industrial level. This would enable diatom shells to be mass-produced, harvested and mixed into paints, cosmetics and clothing to create stunning colour-changing effects, or embedded into polymers to produce difficult-to-forge holograms.
Manufacturing consumer products with these properties currently requires energy-intensive, high-temperature, high-pressure industrial processes that create tiny artificial reflectors. But farming diatom shells, which essentially harnesses a natural growth process, could provide an alternative that takes place at normal room temperature and pressure, dramatically reducing energy needs and so cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The process is also extremely rapid in the right conditions, one diatom can give rise to 100 million descendants in a month.
This ground-breaking advance has been achieved by scientists at the Natural History Museum and the University of Oxford, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The project involved a range of experts from disciplines including biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and materials science.
Its a very efficient and cost-effective process, with a low carbon footprint, says Professor Andrew Parker, who led the research. Its simplicity and
|Contact: Natasha Richardson|
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council