DIY Solar? For Cheap? MIT Says Yes, Yes

OK, all you skeptics who say solar power sucks because all kinds of toxic materials go into the panels. Try this on for size: biophotovoltaics. Specifically, we’re talking about a new technique from a team led by MIT’s Andreas Mershin that could point the way toward using plant materials—even stuff like grass clippings—to make an inexpensive alternative to traditional solar panels.

And not only would this plant-based solar be cheap, but it would be easy to manufacturer. As in, DIY easy.

mershin diy solar

image via MIT

The researchers’ work here revolves around a complex of molecules known as photosystem-I (PS-I)—the tiny structures within plant cells that carry out photosynthesis. Makes sense, since photosynthesis is all about turning sunlight into energy.

Several years ago, an MIT researcher named Shuguang Zhang had derived PS-I from plants, noodled with it, slapped it on a glass substrate, exposed it to light and produced an electric current. This was a great breakthrough, but it didn’t really go anywhere because the assembly and stabilization process—from the chemicals used to the lab equipment needed—was super-expensive and, anyway, it took a tremendous amount of light to get a minuscule bit of electric current.

In the new research, MIT’s Mershin (pictured above) was guided to overcoming these problems by an insight from nature (not the first time we’ve seen that). Thinking about a pine forest, he “noticed that while most of the pines had bare trunks and a canopy of branches only at the very top, a few had small branches all the way down the length of the trunk, capturing any sunlight that trickled down from above,” MIT says in a report on the research. So Mershin “decided to create a microscopic forest on a chip, with PS-I coating his ‘trees’ from top to bottom.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply February 25, 2012

    Andy Thomas

    Indeed solar is the way to go I now only spend about $20 on electricity from the grid after converting to solar power you can read my review on the book that told me how to do it here

  • Reply March 6, 2012


    Let by? Do you mean led by? Who edits this material?

    • Reply March 21, 2012

      Pete Danko

      thanks for the note, anonymous. sorry it took so long to notice. we’ve made the fix.

      • Reply April 16, 2012


        Geez, you didnt capitalize your response.  Who edits this material?

    • Reply March 21, 2012


      Spell check doesn’t work on correctly spelled — but incorrectly used — words yet….Personally, I’m looking foreward to the day it does!
      Oh, and a grammar check.  That’s what I *really* need!

    • Reply March 26, 2012


      Really? Is this the extent of your contribution?

  • Reply March 21, 2012


    Really? you read the whole story ? and all you can come up with to say is “who edits this material?” .. I mean really dude or dudet .. You must be the Critique police ..

    Now me on the other hand.. I’d like to know is if it’s a DIY .. wish they’d have posted how to do it.. I did go to the other page. But My gawd.. You have to be an MIT Major to figure that stuff out. far from DIY ..

  • Reply March 21, 2012


    I agree. But down the road, thorium will be king of the road, IMO.

    • Reply April 25, 2012


       Nobody has made one, I wonder if the technology is even viable or is it just a mathematician’s paper exercise.

  • Reply March 22, 2012

    Gary 7

    REAL DIY would only require we stick a seed in the ground, water, fertilize and plug in,,,

    • Reply April 15, 2012

      Bob Smith


  • Reply March 22, 2012


     Lots of competition for algae.

  • Reply March 24, 2012


    Chicken houses have a lot of roof space not being used for anything. Solar panels are too expensive to be economical. If the bio process is cheap enough, even a 2% efficiency might make this feasible on large existing roof surfaces.
    I wonder if any under-canopy or shade-loving plants have more efficient conversion abilities. They would need it because they get so little sunlight

  • Reply April 19, 2012


    Solar panels are NOT the primary expense in a Photovoltaic residential installation right now.
    I can buy solar panels for about a dollar a watt as seconds, or two dollars a watt for panels with a warranty. Installation, mounts, wiring, inverter, and batteries if your system has batteries, these add up to a couple of times what the panels cost. If you use a professional installer they will not help you reduce electrical needs and will sell you more expensive panels which they marked up.
    I have a residential solar system in Taos NM, it supplies 95% of my electric for under 5 grand.

    • Reply April 25, 2012


       The fun part is attempting to get the obsessive compulsive nut cases that run the local Homeowner’s Association to approve a residential solar system.  They think it looks ugly and destroys the whites-only neighborhood tranquility.

    • Reply May 2, 2012


      false, false, false, & false

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