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Scientists have designed a new type of nanowire – a tiny coaxial cable – that could vastly improve a few key renewable energy technologies, particularly solar cells, and could even impact other cutting-edge, developing technologies, such as quantum computing and nanoelectronics.

One overarching problem is that current semiconducting materials with the potential for use in renewable energy devices lack one key characteristic. When electrons in these materials are excited by light and jump to higher energy levels (leaving vacancies, known as “holes,” in the lower levels), both the electrons and the holes typically move around in the same region. Thus, they tend to recombine. This is desirable for certain applications, such as light-emitting devices, where electron-hole recombination produces light, but is not ideal for renewable energy devices. A better scenario is the separation of the excited electrons from the holes such that, in the case of solar cells, for example, the electrons can be drawn off and used for electricity.