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.
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.”