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Back to the Future
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Back to the Future

November 15, 2012
"Back to the Future," by Mario De Stefano, Second University of Naples, Italy. Nature has been building microscopic cellular solar panels for almost 200 million years. So let's follow her lead, says De Stefano, a marine biologist. De Stefano and his collaborators have been studying diatoms--microscopic algae, and they believe the organisms' cellular structure could inspire the design of solar panels. This illustration demonstrates the principles of biomimeticism, which involves looking "to natural organisms to see our future," De Stefano says. In the foreground, a scanning electron microscope image shows the blue fans of diatom colonies from the species Licmophora flabellate that have attached themselves to a sand grain with a long, gelatinous anchor, called a peduncle. Each cell is a flat wedge with a glass-like wall shaped to maximize its surface area and absorb sunlight more efficiently for photosynthesis. Behind the sand grain, the team presents computer drawings of their bio-inspired solar panels, which would stand 3 meters tall with a span of 50 meters. De Stefano and his collaborators have started building these panels and believe they could be used to create solar-powered street lamps. This image won Honorable Mention in the Illustration category of the 2009 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge (SciVis) competition, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the journal Science. The competition is held each year to celebrate the grand tradition of science visualization and to encourage its continued growth. The spirit of the competition is to communicate science, engineering and technology for education and journalistic purposes. To learn more about the competition and view all the winning entries, see the NSF SciVis Special Report (Date of Image: July 2009) Credit: Mario De Stefano, Antonia Auletta and Carla Langella; Second University of Naples