A Place In The Sun For Waste Silicon?

FOR YEARS, SOLAR-ENERGY proponents have championed silicon--the stuff of computer chips--for turning sunshine into electricity. Trouble is, the cost of this form of silicon power is much higher than volts from fossil-fuel generators. But scientists at Oregon State University's Center for Advanced Materials Research are working to change that, using a tough transparent cement.

With this high-tech glue, the scientists want to build durable solar panels by mixing waste silicon from chipmaking plants into the cement. The approach should be much cheaper than using new silicon to make the panels. In fact, the semi-conductor industry might pay to have its scrap silicon ground up for plastic cement. Some 10,000 tons of toxic silicon waste are produced in the U.S. Using it all to generate electricity, OSU figures, could match the output of eight nuclear power plants. One clever concept would put a silicon tile on railroad ties. Each kilometer of track would then produce 100,000 watts. John R. Arthur, an OSU professor emeritus who directed the materials center until Jan. 1, says ironing out the wrinkles may take about two years.

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