Researchers from the University of California at Santa Barbara have discovered that giant clams may hold the key to improving solar cells and color displays. The new findings indicate that at least two species of giant clams produce a white coloration by combining red, green and blue light, in a manner similar to what occurs in television and smartphone displays.

Giant clams are found in the coral reefs of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, can live as long as 100 years, and grow up to 47 inches (119 cm) long. Their growth is the result of a symbiotic relationship with algae living inside the clam's shell that feeds off the clam's waste, while the clams take in carbohydrates produced through photosynthesis by the algae.

The study focused on the production of iridescent cells created just inside the edge of the clam's shells, as a result of this relationship. These cells produce an array of colors including blues, greens, golds and (more rarely) white, through tiny multi-layer structures of proteins that act like mirrors to reflect various wavelengths of light.

The research team systematically studied each color produced by two different clam species known as Tridacna maxima and Tridacna derasa, to gain a detailed understanding of how they produce the color white. It was found that while Tridacna maxima does so via tight clusters of differently-colored cells, Tridacna derasa utilizes multi-colored individual cells that appear white on a macroscopic scale.

Since most of today's displays generate light using LEDs or another light source and the clams require only sunlight to essentially do the same thing, the researchers are hoping to use what they learn from the clams to build a color-reflective display that works with ambient light sources such as sunlight or normal indoor lighting. The result could lead to the creation of smartphone, tablet and TV screens that use less power and are easier on the eyes.

The research team is also attempting to build more efficient solar cells incorporating reflective structures similar to those found in the clams.

"If we could use what we learned from the clams to build a very efficient distributed light-gathering system, then we could use that to make more efficient, three-dimensional solar cells that require less area than our present roof-top and space-wasting land-based solar farms," said Amitabh Ghoshal, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Santa Barbara, and the study's first author.

The findings from the research were published by The Optical Society in the January 2016 issue of Optica.