A new low-cost, nanotech-based approach to power generation developed by researchers at Boston College and MIT could lead to cleaner-running semiconductors, air conditioners, car exhausts and more. The technique, published online yesterday in Science, uses the nanostructures to dramatically increase thermal efficiency.

The researchers didn’t invent a new material so much as re-work an old one, a semiconductor alloy that’s been used in various devices for five decades. “We have found a way to improve an old material by breaking it up and then rebuilding it in a composite of nanostructures in bulk form,” says BC physicist Zhifeng Ren.

And this isn’t some far-off application, either: The scientists say it could be applied to existing products, enabling them to consume less energy, and use energy that might other was be wasted.